STUDENT SPOTLIGHT: Kirby Parnell
ODENSE, Denmark – Cherokee Nation citizen Kirby Parnell was named a Fulbright Scholar in March and is studying in Denmark where she will conduct research on harbor seal communication and reproductive behavior.
Parnell, of Fort Gibson, Oklahoma, said she’s always had an interest in marine science. Graduating Fort Gibson High School in 2012, she was named a Gates Millennium Scholarship recipient and attended Eckerd College in St. Petersburg, Florida, to study marine sciences.
While at Eckerd, she was afforded the opportunity to study abroad three times in the January program in Malawi, Africa; Roatan Island, Honduras; and Xiamen, China.
While in Malawi she did service work in a remote village tutoring middle school-aged students in English and math, and helping around the village. On Roatan Island, she did a weeklong scientific diving course and learned about dolphin photo identification. And in China, she participated in the Asian Environmental Initiative.
She earned a bachelor’s degree in marine science in 2016 before studying at the University of California Santa Cruz at the Pinniped Cognition and Sensory Systems Laboratory.
“There we study just what the lab is, sensory systems, acoustics of seals and sea lions, cognition. We study their hearing and how sound it going to affect them. I studied Hawaiian monk seal vocalization,” Parnell said. “The laboratory was just what I wanted in my life, to be able to work with animals like one on one.”
She studied the underwater vocalizations, also known as bioacoustics, of a Hawaiian monk seal, which was also the focus of her thesis. “My thesis was to characterize the males under water vocal repertoire and to describe the trends in sound production. So just looking at his vocalizations and how often he produces them during the day and during the year and just characterizing the different types of sounds he makes.”
She earned a master’s degree in ocean sciences in June. In July, as part of the Fulbright award, she traveled to study at the University of Southern Denmark in Odense and conduct research at a marine research station in Kerteminde, Denmark, where she will be located for the next year.
Her research includes a project with harbor seals, studying their reproductive behavior and bioacoustics. She said she’s utilizing technology such as drones to locate marine mammals to study them.
Parnell said she plans to start obtaining a doctorate in 2020 and wants to continue studying bioacoustics of marine mammals.