A summer forging new paths at NOAA professionally and scientifically

Hi everyone! My name is Courtney White, and I am a 2022 EPP/MSI scholar studying chemistry and marine biology at Nova Southeastern University. This summer, I conducted research at the Alaska Fisheries Science Center's Auke Bay Laboratories, which are located at the Ted Stevens Marine Research Institute in Juneau, Alaska.

Courtney poses in a lab, smiling and holding a gray, crescent shaped plate of whale baleen that appears to be a few feet long in her gloved hands. The baleen plate looks hard and fibrous.
Courtney with a subsampled baleen plate from a humpback whale. Baleen is a keratinous tissue, like human hair, that hangs from the upper jaw of the whale’s mouth and is used for filter feeding. This plate was acquired from a necropsy, or an examination of a dead whale. To subsample, the plate is marked every centimeter and a rotary tool is used to grind the plate into a powder. (Image credit: Courtney White)

My project focused on developing a new method for measuring the amount of persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in whale baleen. POPs include chemicals like insecticides. In marine mammals, POPs have been shown to have negative effects on the reproductive, endocrine, and immune systems. This research allows us to tell the stories of individual whales by establishing how exposure to POPs changes across time and space, which can help better inform management and conservation efforts. I explored the relationship between reproductive status and contaminant concentrations. In marine mammals, mothers often offload, or “dump” contaminants into their offspring during gestation and/or lactation. We wanted to know how POP loads differed in pregnant, lactating, and “resting,” or not reproductively active, whales. I am excited to continue working on this project while completing my undergraduate studies.

A whale tail is sticking out of the water under an overcast sky.
A humpback whale dives in Auke Bay, Alaska. Courtney and her mentor, Matt Rogers, went out on the water to get to know some of the whales in the population they’re studying. (Image credit: Courtney White)

This summer was a truly life changing experience. I gained experience in the career I am passionate about pursuing while making lifelong connections with my mentors, other members of the lab, and the incredible community of Juneau. I am looking forward to continuing to forge my path as a NOAA researcher, a journey that is sure to be filled with growth, exciting challenges, and endless exploration.

Courtney poses on sloping terrain against a picturesque Alaskan alpine landscape. A rocky area with low vegetation and mosses gives way to low grass as it slopes down towards another rocky area. At the base of the slope, an area is covered in snow and ice that thinly covers a pool of water. Beyond the icy pool there are mountains in the backgrounds partially covered in snow.
When Courtney wasn’t in the lab, she explored Juneau by doing a lot of mountain running. Here she is on Juneau Ridge. (Image credit: Franz Mueter)
Headshot of Courtney in a business jacket.
Courtney White, 2022 EPP/MSI undergraduate scholar

Courtney is a 2022 EPP/MSI undergraduate scholar majoring in chemistry and marine biology at Nova Southeastern University.