Cloquet grad heads out on a whale of an adventure
Like the Wizard of Oz, Logan Pallin’s giant disembodied head appears on a whiteboard at Cloquet Middle School, ready to have a conversation with the “tweenage” students about his next great scientific adventure.
Unlike the Wizard of Oz, the Cloquet High School grad is exactly what he says he is: an emerging scientific researcher. And on the last day of this month, he will board a ship from Punta Arenas, Chile, in South America and head south — very far south — to Antarctica, to study the effect of global climate change on humpback whales for four months.
Pallin said he usually begins his talks with students by asking them to tell them how they picture a scientist.
“Usually the answer is “male, with nerdy glasses, a white lab coat and lots of glass containers to mix chemicals,” he said in yet another Google Hangout on Friday. “When I tell people what I do, a lot of them think I work at Sea World or something. But I’m a marine conservation biologist that does amazing research and gets to go to these amazing places.”
And it all started right here in Cloquet, at exactly the same building those middle school students are sitting and in the same science classrooms with the same science teachers, including both Cindy Welsh and Cindy Edwardson.
The students pepper Pallin with questions: What does a person pack for four months in Antarctica? How will he dress? Are humpback whales dangerous? What do they eat … people? Is there internet in Antarctica?
The answers flow as easily as the questions, even more so.
Humpback whales don’t eat people. They mostly eat krill (tiny shrimplike creatures) and occasionally smaller fish, but no larger fish and certainly not people.
Pallin has been preparing for his trip since February. He’s had to undergo fairly intense medical screening, get tested for all kinds of diseases from tuberculosis to HIV, have an extensive physical and dental checkup, and more because there is no medical clinic up the hill.
“If something serious happens, like your appendix, it’s five days to the nearest doctor’s office in South America, and that’s probably not going to be what we’re used to in the U.S.,” he said.
What’s he packing?
Well, at least two pair of winter boots, three or four winter jackets, four pair of long underwear, six pair of wool socks and A LOT of waterproof gear.
“I’ll be working on the water every day I can … on a 15-foot Zodiac boat alongside these 40-foot animals,” Pallin said. “Staying dry is pertinent because the water temperature is minus-2 degrees Centigrade (about 28 degrees Fahrenheit). So if you fall in the water, it puts you in a life or death situation very quickly.”
Looking big picture, Pallin’s actually been preparing for this trip for four years, starting his junior year at Duke University, when he started working on the Antarctic project. He even took a year off of school sometime in between, so he could figure out a way to determine if a humpback whale is pregnant by taking a tissue sample.
Even bigger picture, one could say he’s been building his resume ever since his first science fair as a CMS student. Pallin said he fell in love with science fair after he gave his first presentation.
“As soon as I had the opportunity to show that this is my work and this is what I found, it all clicked. From then on, I was hooked.”
Under the tutelage of Welsh, Pallin did science and environmental water quality research for six years in middle and high school. His science projects got more and more complicated each year, and Pallin’s projects took him around the country, to the Minnesota Academy of Science State Science Fair, the Intel International Science and Engineering fair, the Minnesota Stockholm Junior Waterprize, and the National American Indian Science and Engineering Fair.
They also landed him a full-ride scholarship to Duke University, where he also spent six months at the Great Barrier Reef in Australia, doing research for his undergraduate studies.
Now a graduate student at Oregon State University pursuing a master’s degree in OSU’s fisheries and wildlife program, Pallin is working with Dr. Ari Friedlaender in the Marine Mammal Institute at OSU’s Hatfield marine science center. In Antarctica, he will be stationed at Palmer Station, one of the three United States research stations located in Antarctica. (A view from the station can be seen on the Palmer Station webcam.)
Completing the whale pregnancy tests he helped develop will certainly be one of Pallin’s job duties in Antarctica.
Pallin explained that there are no paper cups involved, although suction cups do come into the picture …
“When we’re in the field, we use a crossbow to collect a small piece of skin and underlying blubber from the animal,” he said, noting that the bow captures a tissue sample about the size of a person’s pinky finger. “From that, we do all our genetic and tissue analysis. We can figure out what they eat, gender, if they’re pregnant, how old they are, among other things. That’s where all my work lies — trying to figure out what we can learn from these tissue samples.”
They research the whales in other ways too. Team members attach GPS tracking tags to the animals, and D-tags, which are basically suction-cup tags that stay on for between 12 and 24 hours and tell the researchers how the animal is moving underneath the water, how they feed and more.
Why is it important?
Pallin explains how the population of humpback whales was decimated in the southern hemisphere from the early 1900s until 1974, when whaling was stopped in that part of the world. More than 200,000 humpback whales were hunted and commercially harvested.
Now they’re making an even better comeback than expected.
“These populations are recovering more rapidly than we had expected,” he said. “We’re really trying to understand how this recovery could change as the Antarctic continent continues to change.”
Palmer Station, he explained, is the fastest warming place on the planet. The average temperature there has climbed 5 degrees Centigrade since 1950 and the average winter season has decreased by 90 days.
“We really want to understand and set a baseline for the population now because we have the capacity to study them over the next 100 years, see what it looks like now and then compare how the population changes and adapts to climate change,” he said.
The work Pallin and his companions are doing is part of the Palmer Long Term Ecological Research program, a National Science Foundation (NSF) funded project aimed at understanding this polar marine biome as a whole with research focused on the Antarctic pelagic marine ecosystem, including sea ice habitats, regional oceanography, marine mammals, and terrestrial nesting sites of seabird predators along the Western Antarctic Peninsula.
Pallin and his team will remain at Palmer Station through April.
They won’t be incommunicado while they’re at the bottom of the world, however. Pallin said the group has set up a blog, where he and fellow grad student Erin Pickett will write (and post photos) about what they’re doing and seeing.
“People can get a first hand, immediate taste of what’s going on,” he said, stressing that anyone can watch, but he’s really hoping a lot of students across the country and even the world will check it out. “The aim is to make the research more meaningful to people, and to show them these beautiful images of icebergs and penguins and seals and whales … that’s the vision anyway.”
It’s all part of letting the world know how important science and scientific research are. Pallin is a big advocate for the STEM (Science, Technology, Engineering, Mathematics) field. Since graduating from Cloquet Senior High School in 2010, he has made several guest appearances at the Cloquet Middle School as well as Churchill Elementary, talking about his experiences as he has progressed from an aspiring scientist to emerging researcher.
While his ultimate goal is to become a research professor, investigating cetacean ecology, he said he really wants to inspire the next generation of young scientists.
“I want kids to know that you don’t have to be a brainiac to be a scientist, you just have to find something you’re interested in and develop a passion for it. If you can do that, you’ll never have to work a day in your life.
He continued with a plea for more kids to give science and other related fields a chance, for the world’s sake.
“It is my personal opinion that our nation lacks in the STEM fields,” he said. “And with the current onset of environmental change, we are in dire need of new and young minds to help us solve our problems.”
Want to know more?
Cloquet 2010 graduate Logan Pallin and his graduate colleagues and advisor from both Oregon State and Duke University plan to set up a blog giving people the opportunity to follow their adventures studying humpback whales and see firsthand the scientific work (and lots of photos) in the Antarctic. Starting the first day of 2016 (after their ship departs), find the blog at http://blogs.oregonstate.edu/ltercetaceans/ and look for a link on the Pine Journal homepage at www.pinejournal.com.
There is also a Netflix documentary, called “Antarctic Edge: 70 degrees south” about the entire Palmer Station project.
“You get to see what it’s like working the Antarctic,” Pallin said. “We’re traveling to one of the most remote, pristine places in the world.”