The Mexican Marine Mammalogy Summer School: training new generations and strengthening our scientific society
Karina Acevedo-Whitehouse1,2,*, Fabiola Guerrero de la Rosa1,2, Juan José Alava3, Geraldine Busquets Vass1,4, Frank Cipriano5, Raúl Díaz-Gamboa1,6, Fernando R. Elorriaga Verplancken1,4, Cara Field7, Concepción García-Aguilar1,8, Diane Gendron1,4, Alejandro Gómez Gallardo1,9, Claudia J. Hernández Camacho1,4, Valentina Islas Villanueva1,10, Armando Jaramillo Legorreta1,11, Paloma Ladrón de Guevara1, Sergio Martínez Aguilar1,12, Ibiza Martínez Serrano1,13, Luis Medrano1,14, Dilia R. Meza Castro15, Sally Mizroch16, Adrián Mungia-Vega17, Seth Newsome18, Christian Ortega Ortiz1,19, Aurora Paniagua-Mendoza1,20, Mario A. Pardo1,21, Larissa Rosa de Oliveira1,22,, Hiram Rosales Nanduca1,12, Diego Ruiz Sabio23, Jorge Urbán1,12, Lorena Viloria1,12
First proposed in May 2012 during the annual members’ meeting of the Mexican Society of Marine Mammalogy (SOMEMMA), the oldest Marine Mammal Society in the world, founded in 1979, we have now completed the fourth biennial Marine Mammalogy Summer School (E3M) in La Paz, Mexico.
The E3M has been tremendously rewarding for both students and instructors. So far, we have trained nearly 200 undergraduate and 100 graduate students. Seeing so many students interested in learning about marine mammals has been inspiring to us, particularly at a time when nearly 20% of the 50 species of marine mammals that inhabit Mexican waters are endangered, and one, the Vaquita, is facing extinction.
Akin to the species we study, the E3M has adapted and evolved from a four-day course focusing on basic biology of marine mammals to a two-module (regular and advanced) eight-day Summer School. We now offer our students 70 hours of lectures, hands-on wetlabs, and fieldwork training, nearly 20 subjects ranging from evolution and systematics to social dimensions of marine mammal conservation. Being held in the Gulf of California, the richest region in marine mammal species in Mexico, means that students have a unique opportunity to see a diverse community of odontocetes, mysticetes and pinnipeds during the fieldtrip, and acquire some hands-on experience in a wide variety of fundamental and cutting-edge techniques used to study and sample them.
We feel proud of what our Summer School offers. We have kept enrollment prices low, which has allowed us to attract participants from different parts of Mexico, the US, and various countries from Europe and Latin America, including students from non-coastal areas where marine mammalogy is rarely or never taught. At a cost of only $120 USD including accommodation, E3M is one of the most financially accessible specialized short courses in the world. E3M provides a unique learning opportunity. Because the E3M is not linked to a specific university or research center, but rather to SOMEMMA and the larger marine mammal scientific community it serves, various researchers from different parts of Mexico, as well as from other countries participate as instructors, bringing a wealth of knowledge, experience, and different teaching styles that have helped engage our students. Many of the instructors tend to be at the back of the room during their colleague’s lectures, which has helped make the lectures very casual, accessible, and dynamic. It is common for questions posed by the students to be answered by different colleagues, which helps students understand concepts from different perspectives. These interactions have allowed the instructors to interact in unique ways that help strengthen ties among us and in some cases have led to new collaborations and students visiting each other’s labs to complete additional training.
A key aspect that makes these courses affordable and effective is that organizers and instructors give their time and effort for free. Organizing the summer school takes a full year and involves raising enough funds to cover the cost of airfare for the participating instructors, hiring a ship, and ensuring accommodation for students and instructors. Our venture has not always been easy given the current economic situation, with deep budget cuts and scarce funding opportunities, especially for training programs. However, the institutions of our instructors have helped greatly via access to facilities, equipment loans, motorboats, crew members, and volunteer support staff. In particular, support from CICIMAR (Interdisciplinary Center for Marine Sciences of the National Polytechnic Institute), WWF (World Wildlife Fund), Museo de la Ballena-Centro de Rescate (Whale Museum and Rescue Center), CICESE-ULP (Center for Scientific Research and Advanced Studies of Ensenada, La Paz Unit), various Mexican autonomous universities (Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán), Ecology Project International, and CONACYT (National Council for Science and Technology), has been essential for helping the E3M become what it is now.
‘Exciting’, ‘Life-changing’, ‘Inspiring’, ‘Incredible’, ‘Marvelous’, ‘Heart’; these words have been used by students and invited instructors to describe the E3M. It certainly has been for us, and it has been especially encouraging to see so much interest in our field of study. After all, one of SOMEMMA’s statutes is to participate in the training of undergraduate and graduate students in marine mammalogy. While this has been accomplished for decades through our biennial conference and individual mentoring, younger members of SOMEMMA and the wider marine mammal scientific community we are benefiting from communal teaching and sharing our personal experiences in the field. In the process, as instructors, we are also learning about subjects that we are not specialized in.
We hope our experience with the Mexican Marine Mammalogy Summer School inspires other scientific societies to follow suit. At a time characterized by scarce funding, limited opportunities, individualism and fierce competition, it is heartening to see how community efforts based on sharing resources and knowledge can help motivate and mentor new generations of marine mammalogists to become interested in science, conservation, legislation, and management, all in a collaborative and collegial framework. We expect these next generations will greatly expand our understanding of marine mammal biology and help to contribute with new methods and conservation applications in benefit of the sustainability of marine ecosystems in Mexico and beyond.
1 Sociedad Mexicana de Mastozología Marina (SOMEMMA), Mexico. 2 Universidad Autónoma de Querétaro, Querétaro, 76230, Mexico. 3 Institute for the Oceans and Fisheries, University of British Columbia, Vancouver, BC, V6T 1Z4, Canada. 4 Instituto Politécnico Nacional, Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23096, Mexico. 5 Genomics/Transcriptomics Analysis Core, San Francisco State University, San Francisco, California 94132, USA. 6 Universidad Autónoma de Yucatán, Mérida, Yucatán, 97100, Mexico.7 The Marine Mammal Center, Sausalito, California, 94965, USA. 8 Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Ensenada, Baja California, 22860, Mexico. 9 Univerisdad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, La Paz, 23080, Mexico. 10 Universidad del Mar, Puerto Escondido, Oaxaca, 71980, Mexico. 11 Comisión Nacional para el Conocimiento y Uso de la Biodiversidad, Ensenada, Baja California, 22860, Mexico 12 Universidad Autónoma de Baja California Sur, La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23081, Mexico. 13 Universidad Veracruzana, Xalapa, Veracruz, 91090. 14 Universidad Nacional Autónoma de México, Cd. de México, 04510, Mexico. 15 Comisión Nacional de Áreas Naturales Protegidas (CONANP), La Paz, Baja California Sur, 23090, Mexico. 16 Blue Sea Research, Seattle, Washington, USA. 17 The University of Arizona, Tucson, Arizona, 85721, USA. 18 Department of Biology, The University of New Mexico, Albuquerque, New Mexico, 87131, USA. 19 Universidad de Colima, Colima, 28040, Mexico. 20 Red de Varamientos de Mamíferos Marinos de La Paz & MMARES, AC. Mexico 21 Centro Interdisciplinario de Ciencias Marinas, Unidad La Paz, La Paz Baja California Sur, 23059, Mexico. 22 Universidade do Vale do Rio dos Sinos, Sao Leopoldo, Brazil. 23 Museo de la Ballena y Ciencias Marinas, La Paz, BCS, 23000, Mexico.
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