Alum Rob Schick is using GIS Technologies to track, and better understand what drives behavior and health-in both animals and humans
By Whitney L. Jackson
Location, Location, Location
It’s more than a fundamental tenet behind real estate success. It’s also the driving force behind particular areas of environmental research.
When it comes to understanding behaviors and health—both animal and human—knowing where individuals are located when they engage in various activities can be critical. Without that information, it’s virtually impossible to pinpoint what might be impacting their actions.
And that’s how Rob Schick, senior research fellow at the Centre for Research into Ecological and Environmental Modelling (CREEM) at the University of St Andrews in Scotland, approaches his investigations.
Schick MEM’02/PhD’09, uses spatial analysis with tagging data to track where his subjects swim. Whether it’s right whales, harbor seals, or turtles, he follows marine life to see how external factors could be affecting their overall health. Having this data is important, he said, because human encroachment on animal habitats, especially aquatic ones, always comes with consequences.
“I’ve been fascinated by how animals move from place to place and why they go places at certain times,” he says. “It’s a thread that’s evolved throughout my research, especially within the ocean. It’s exciting and difficult to follow because of the dynamic environment. It’s constantly changing.”
Schick’s career focus wasn’t always so clear. He knew early on he wanted to concentrate on marine mammals in some way, but it wasn’t until a 1998 conference on geographic information systems (GIS) and conservation that he pinpointed where he wanted to devote his attention.
“I had a seminal moment of understanding,” he says. “GIS was something I hadn’t heard about before, and it blew me away.”
His interest solidified over a conference dinner conversation on the distribution and orientation of bowhead whales around oil platforms in Alaska. That discussion sealed his career trajectory. From that moment, he knew he would dedicate his career to studying how outside forces augment or damage marine life.
He needed an academic home to hone the skills needed for this type of research, though, and he landed at Duke’s Nicholas School of the Environment. He earned his MEM degree (concentration in Resource Ecology), focusing on the spatial components that impacted the Alaska bowhead whales, and made his first professional foray as an assistant scientist at the Edgerton Research Laboratory in the New England Aquarium. He returned to Duke in 2005 to complete his PhD in the University Program in Ecology.
While at Duke, he studied under faculty members Dean Urban, Jim Clark and Pat Halpin. He became a faculty member himself at Duke in 2012 holding a joint appointment as a consulting associate in the Psychiatry and Behavioral Sciences Department at the Duke University Medical Center. The lengthy association has strengthened his professional capabilities, he says.
“Duke has made me a better scientist and made me appreciate nature even more,” Schick says. “The quality and the caliber of the faculty and the students is amazing. There are world leaders here, and it’s really nice to know if you have an idea, they are here to provide guidance.”
According to Halpin, Schick was always different from the rest of his students. He didn’t follow the traditional path when it came to applying his knowledge and education.
“Rob has always been a really great example of someone who can straddle fundamental science and the practical applications of science,” he says. “He brings knowledge about ecosystems and ecology to the table, as well as technical and analytical statistical skills that are unique.”
It’s a skill-set rarely found in environment research, and Schick polished it differently from others. Instead of launching his career with fundamental science before tackling more tangible endeavors, he cut his professional teeth by applying his abilities. Only then did he pivot back to more basic science. Regardless of his professional path, Schick’s work is critical, Halpin says, because he concentrates on marine animals that are either endangered or protected.
“His work gives us better understanding and gives us goals,” Halpin says. “We need dynamic management, and we need to implement new methods for ocean management and research to make a significant impact.”
Marine Mammals & Health
Since conducting early field work on humpback whales, Schick’s research has always leaned heavily in the direction of marine mammals. He’s garnered nearly $2.5 million in U.S. Office of Naval Research (ONR) funding since 2012 to study how acoustic disturbances such as SONAR impact right whales and other marine mammals. Is it possible to see if these mammals move quickly as they migrate or if they slow down? Do their behaviors change in the presence of negative stimuli?
“We’re not just looking at where the animals are going. Are they healthier in certain places than in others?” he says. “Knowing this is relevant because disturbances can happen at different times and affect an animal’s health differently.”
Schick joined an ONR group in 2010. As part of that collaboration, he has been working with scientists at the New England Aquarium who have been collecting data on right whales since 1984. The aquarium has been following their movement patterns and looking at the impact of any entanglements that occur.
In October, the group submitted a paper for publication that looks at the effects of entanglements on whale health based on photographs and measurements that have been taken of the same individuals whales over time. Based on the data, Schick says, they have classified each entanglement by severity and estimated each whale’s health in order to determine its likelihood of survival.
Tagging and taking pictures for reference is particularly helpful, he says, because whales can sometimes go unseen for two years or more. Having photo evidence can aid researchers in determining whether an entanglement is old or new and how much of a negative impact it’s had.
“It’s a sad story,” he says, “because entangled animals don’t fare well.”
Harbor Seals & Drones
Perhaps some of Schick’s most innovative work has been his research into the effect of acoustic disturbances from wind farms on harbor seals. For the past two years, Schick and his colleagues from the University of Aberdeen and the Scottish Association for Marine Science have used drone technology to follow harbor seals living and feeding near these wind farms.
Harbor seals will fare better if they’re fat and in good condition when their food sources become scarce. If they’re already weakened, however, anything that limits nutrition can be catastrophic.
The construction and operation of the wind farms—in 2017 and 2018— produces a great deal of noise, and may prompt seals to shy away from foraging for food in these areas during the building process. To see how the noise impacts the seals’ health, the drone flies over the island estuary 120 meters off shore, taking pictures. Comparisons over time help researchers identify any negative health effects.
“With drones, the idea is to be able to see whether noises are having individual impacts on animals,” he says. “This technology is helping us gather a lot of data on what’s critical to the harbor seals’ habitat.”
Using ImageJ software, an opensource program designed specifically for scientific image analysis, the team has identified and tracked specific seals and their pups, chronicling their size and condition. The research is particularly important, he says, because large populations of harbor seals live around the English and Scottish coastlines, and their numbers are declining.
Spatial Analysis & Smoking
Although Schick’s main interest with spatial analysis extends to marine mammals, he’s pivoted to apply it to smoking behavior in humans, as well.
“There’s lots of carryover between smokers and whales. The idea is that we’re looking at human health,” he says. “While we can record movements in whales, we still don’t know the specifics of their behaviors necessarily. In contrast, people can tell us where they smoked and whether it was satisfying, yielding a better understand of behavior.”
The goal is to use geographical mapping to identify any links between smoking and environmental factors, especially those dealing with space. Existing research demonstrates a clear spatial link in lab rats addicted to nicotine—rats will continue to gravitate toward locations long after the nicotine they crave disappears.
Schick hopes his research will reveal whether the same association holds true for humans. Is an individual’s smoking behavior tied to a certain time of day or a specific place? Is there anything that makes someone more or less likely to smoke at any given time? Knowing these answers could be critical because successfully quitting smoking is extremely difficult. If a smoker trying to quit knows a particular location can present temptation, he or she might avoid it to potentially side-step any relapse.
True to professional track record, Schick is taking this knowledge and is leveraging it in a practical application. In collaboration with other St Andrews’ University researchers, he’s developed a smartphone app that brings together statistics, computer science, and medicine to assist with smoking cessation. Even though smokers can overcome physiological cravings within a week, neurological pathways that can trigger the desire to smoke can be hard-wired. That’s where the app, launched in July, can step in, he says.
Approximately 100 volunteer app testers, recruited by the National Health Service, will record the time, location, space, strength of craving, and enjoyment level anytime they smoke or want to smoke. Over time, the app will identify if a smoker is near a risky location and will send supportive text messages designed to keep the individual on track. Physicians will also be able to use this recorded information to further assist smokers in their efforts.
He hopes this collaboration and app will increase the odds of success for individuals undertaking smoking cessation.
“I hope that my work can make the world a better place,” he says. “So, if this could have a positive impact on people’s individual health, it would really be very rewarding for me.”
Ultimately, Schick says, his main research interest is understanding how time and space affect health. Whether the research subject is aquatic or human is secondary to using advanced, up-to-date technology to gather real-time data that can be leveraged to potentially change or modify behaviors. If his work reveals previously unknown patterns that impact health and longevity at the individual or population levels, then he considers his efforts to be fruitful.
“For me the thing I get excited about is trying to understand the interplay between behavior and health and space,” Schick says. Whether it’s humans or whales, that gets my research juices flowing. I just find it interesting.”
Whitney L. Jackson is a freelance science writer based in Durham.