Marine biology graduate student wins conference award

UNCW graduate student Sara McClelland's presentation on the vascular systems of whales and dolphins won her "best oral presentation by a non-doctoral student" at the 18th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals held in Quebec City on Oct. 16, 2009.

A fifth semester marine biology student, McClelland analyzes blood vessel structure in the blubber of deep and shallow diving whales and dolphins in order to determine if these patterns affect diving ability. Blood vessels transport nutrients, lipids, gases and other molecules to and away from the blubber.

McClelland says that UNCW's marine mammal stranding program has allowed her to study the physiology of shallow-diving bottlenose dolphins and deep-diving pygmy sperm whales, which regularly strand on North Carolina's coast. Her work is part of an Office of Naval Research funded project headed by UNCW marine biology professors Heather Koopman and Andrew Westgate. The research group is working to determine the nitrogen solubility of blubber of different species of marine mammals, which could have a far-reaching impact in terms of what scientists currently know about blubber adaptations.

Koopman said that McClelland's success at the conference, which was attended by more than 1,700 researchers from approximately 25 countries, highlights the quality of research that UNCW graduate students are carrying out on an international scale.

"It reveals how well our students perform when disseminating their work to a broader audience, and that they do so with confidence," Koopman said. "This award in particular emphasizes how important and interesting, and vital basic research is to the field of marine biology."

Approximately 12 UNCW faculty and students attended the conference. UNCW has a history of presenting at this conference; the last one was held in Cape Town, South Africa in December 2007. Researchers apply to present by sending an abstract several months in advance.

As UNCW's only award recipient this year, McClelland received recognition at the conference, a certificate, a free ticket to the closing banquet, a marine mammalogy textbook and DVD set, and a cash prize.

"It means a lot to me to have been recognized by established researchers in the field for the work I'm doing and for the presentation I gave," says McClelland, who plans to get a doctoral degree and present future research at the 20th Biennial Conference on the Biology of Marine Mammals in 2013 in New Zealand . "I feel humbled and confident, but more than anything I feel grateful that I could represent my advisor, my lab, and my school this well."

-- Lindsay Key '11MFA