Professor Working with U.S. Navy on Marine Mammal Research Study

News Story: January 17, 2013

Sacred Heart University Assistant Professor of psychology Dr. Deirdre Yeater is working under a grant from the U.S. Navy on a research project to determine the diving patterns of select marine mammals. The research will be used to protect the animals from the possible side effects of naval technology.

“The Navy is developing a model to evaluate the effects of anthropogenic sound on marine species — they want to see the human impact,” Dr. Yeater says. “They want to protect marine animals while allowing for the Navy to perform their at-sea exercises that are important for homeland protection.”

Yeater’s work on the project involves collecting scientific data, compiling articles, reviewing varied data sources and creating diving profiles for different species of marine mammals. “I’m looking at the marine-mammal movement and diving patterns, broken down by individual species, in some cases for different geographic regions or seasons,” Dr. Yeater explains. “This way if the Navy has a proposed exercise in a certain region at a certain time of year, then they would know what animals might be in the area and what the movements of those animals would be.”

Dr. Deirdre Yeater

While Dr. Yeater is happy to be conducting research for a study she deems environmentally important, she has also been excited to provide research-assistant opportunities to her students. Yeater’s grant budget allowed her to employee three of SHU’s undergraduate psychology majors to help compile data during the recent spring semester, and an additional four this summer. (In the spring semester, four more students also volunteered their time to help research and compile data for the project.)

“The students were each assigned a species to help compile data on, so they became experts on their species,” Yeater says. “They got to gain experience doing this kind of research, reviewing primary literature and picking out important or relevant parts of the dataset that we’re interested in, and then applying it. They also got to understand the reality of working with data, that marine-mammal studies aren’t always just looking at swimming dolphins or something — it’s actually doing data analyses and looking through the literature. That’s valuable experience for their career and their future no matter what field they go into.”

One of those students was senior psychology major Lisa Moffett, a resident of Franklin Square, New York, and a member of the Phi Eta Sigma Honor Society.

“I focused on pilot whales, researching their diving patterns, whether they took short dives or long dives, if they were foraging, and so on,” Moffett says. “It was a little hard because there’s not much information on pilot whales and their diving patterns. But the pilot whales were interesting because it’s not a really popular species, people don’t really discuss them. So it was interesting to see their diving patterns and what they actually do, and how it’s actually changed since years ago.”

Moffett says that working on the project gave her not only experience in research, but a new perspective on how much concern the Navy shows for the environment. “When you really put all the research together, it makes a difference,” she says. “I think most people think the Navy doesn’t really care about this issue, especially for species that aren’t well known. But it’s nice to know that they do care about all these different species and what actions and behavior might be affecting them.”

Dr. Yeater has a long history of studying both marine mammals and of working with the military. Before attending the University of Southern Mississippi to earn her master’s and doctorate degrees (both in experimental psychology with an emphasis on marine mammal behavior and cognition), she was commissioned in the U.S. Navy Reserve, working with Naval research laboratories in Newport Rhode Island and San Diego California as well as several private institutions. Today, in addition to her fulltime professorship at SHU, Dr. Yeater still serves as a lieutenant in the Navy Reserve.

Pending budget approval, Yeater’s research program will continue into and throughout the 2009-’10 academic year.