MS in Marine Science: Foraging Ecology of Emperor Penguins:

Dr. Birgitte McDonald of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab at Moss Landing Marine Labs at San Jose State University (https://mlml.sjsu.edu) is seeking a MS student interested in the foraging ecology of seabirds.

Project Overview

Emperor penguins are year-round predators in the Antarctic Ecosystem. To understand their role in the ecosystem and how this may shift with environmental change, it is important to learn what food sources are important to them, how hard they work to get a meal, and where to go to find food.  Dr. McDonald’s National Science Foundation funded project is investigating the foraging ecology and habitat use of Ross Sea emperor penguins during critical periods in their life history. Specifically, this project 1) investigates the foraging energetics, ecology, and habitat use of Emperor Penguins at Cape Crozier, during late chick-rearing. Energy management is particularly crucial during late chick-rearing as parents need to feed both themselves and their rapidly growing offspring, while being constrained to regions near the colony. And 2) Study the ecology and habitat preference of Ross Sea Emperor Penguins after the molt and through early reproduction. The post-molt foraging trip may be the most dangerous time for emperor penguins as they recover from a 50% loss in protein while doubling their body mass for the reproduction fast ahead of them. The master’s student will complete a thesis that contributes to the project’s goal using samples and data collected between October 2022 – February 2023. This could range from investigating diet using molecular techniques to investigating diving behavior after the molt. While the student will not travel to the Antarctic, there will be many opportunities to assist with local research to obtain s

imilar skills. This study will fill important knowledge gaps on the energy balance, diet, and habitat use of emperor penguins. Two years of NSF-funded tuition and stipend support are available for the selected student.


Required Qualifications

  • Either a Bachelor’s degree in Biology, Physiology, or Ecology , ora Bachelor’s degree in Statistics or Mathematics with documented experience in biology.
  • Research experience
  • Excellent spoken and written communication skills
  • The ability to work independently as well as work well as part of a team

Preferred Qualifications

  • Field experience, ideally with seabirds or marine mammals
  • Experience with R or MatLab for programming and/or data analysis

Interested candidates should email a cover letter with your research interests and experience, a CV, and unofficial transcripts to Dr. Gitte McDonald (birgitte.mcdonald@sjsu.edu). Qualified candidates will be contacted in December to discuss the project and program further and encouraged to apply to the MS program (Due Feb 1, 2023). Emails with required attachments received before December 1, 2022 will receive first consideration, but the position will remain open until a student is selected.

Prospective graduate students:

Dr. McDonald typically accepts two new students each year. If you are interested in applying to the graduate program through the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, please check out the MLML graduate program website and read about the research conducted in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab (Research page and current and former students).  If you are still interested, please send Dr. McDonald the following:

  • a letter describing your research interests and why you are interested in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab
  • a curriculum vitae or résumé
  • copies of your college transcripts
  • your GRE scores

It is recommended that prospective students schedule a trip to Moss Landing to view the facilities and to meet Dr. McDonald and some of the students.

Program overview:

Graduate students in the MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab study marine and estuarine birds, marine mammals, and sea turtles. Under the guidance of advisor Dr. Birgitte (Gitte) I. McDonald, students pursue a program tailored to prepare them for careers in research, teaching, or environmental studies, or for entrance into advanced graduate programs. The program combines classwork and field studies to provide students with experience in all aspects of field research, including designing field studies, writing grant proposals, conducting research, analyzing data, and writing papers regarding research findings. For more information about the graduate program, admission requirements, and curriculum please visit the graduate program website.

A review of the thesis projects of current Vertebrate Ecology Lab students, the thesis titles of previous graduates of the Vertebrate Ecology Lab, and description of Dr. McDonald’s research interests will provide an idea of the types of marine bird, mammal, and sea turtle studies typically conducted at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories.

Admission requirements (Specific to Vertebrate Ecology Lab):

In addition to the general requirements for admission to the graduate program at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, successful applicants to the Vertebrate Ecology Lab have usually completed a bachelor’s degree in a biological science with a G.P.A. of at least 3.4, have good G.R.E. scores (ranking in the upper 25%), and have acquired relevant field experience through, for instance, a job or internship.

Internships/Volunteer positions:

The MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab does not have a formal internship program, but provides volunteer opportunities for a few prospective students or other interested persons who are willing to relocate to the Monterey Bay area. We ask interns to commit to a minimum internship period of two – three months, with a minimum weekly time commitment of 18-20 hours. Internship positions are available during all times of the year. We usually have opportunities for at most two interns at a time.

Interns in the lab help out on a variety of projects depending on what help graduate students need (photo ID, diet studies, data analysis, etc). All interns help out with our stranding program. The types of projects available for internship participation vary, depending upon the time of year and the research being conducted by lab members. A review of the thesis projects of current graduate students will provide an idea of some of the studies in which interns might become involved.

Interns are encouraged to participate in all of the Vertebrate Ecology Labs ongoing activities. In addition to their internship duties, interns are welcome to attend and participate in any lab functions that occur while they’re with us, such as monthly lab meetings (during the academic year) and the annual MLML Open House.

MLML provides no financial support or housing for interns, but we can often help them find local housing and employment (it should be noted that housing in the area tends to be rather expensive). Due to the field-oriented nature of internship work, and the scarcity of housing in the town of Moss Landing, a personal car is a necessity (cars cannot be provided by MLML).

If you are interested in interning with the MLML Vertebrate Ecology Lab, please email Dr. McDonald (gmcdonald@mlml.calstate.edu) the following to assist with the selection process:

  • Statement of why you want to intern in the Vertebrate Ecology Lab and how it fits in with your education and career plans
  • Curriculum vitae or résumé
  • Dates you are available
  • Unofficial transcripts (or list of classes with grades)

If you have any questions please feel free to contact Dr. McDonald.