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Vanessa Pirotta

Marine biologist

Vanessa Pirotta

Working with whale snot is not something you stumble into. Vanessa Pirotta is PhD candidate at Macquarie University and recent FameLab Australia finalist. It’s taken a Science degree, a Master’s degree, and a part-time job at a zoo to study marine biology and realise her dream of working with marine animals.

“I always knew that I wanted to work with animals, especially marine animals, but I never knew how I would get there.” says Vanessa. She began to study marine biology with a Science degree at ANU majoring in Zoology, Evolution and Ecology.

“My undergraduate allowed me to explore my favourite topics and helped narrow my focus towards my future career path.” she says. From there, she undertook a research assistant position to prevent whales getting tangled in fishing gear, and turned that research into work for her Master’s and later went on to a PhD.

So, how does snot come into this?

At FameLab’s NSW semi-finals, Vanessa won the People’s Choice Award. Her engaging and theatrical presentation, “Drones: using emerging technologies for whale conservation” detailed as much as possible about her PhD research in marine science in a measly 3 minutes.

“My PhD is heavily conservation based.” explains Vanessa. “As part of this, I am investigating the use of emerging technologies such as drones for whale conservation. I saw the potential in collecting biological samples such as whale snot as an assessment of whale health.”

One thing we learned from Vanessa’s thesis is that it’s not just water shooting up from their blowholes as whales surface from the ocean. It’s a mixture of snot and saltwater which is a goldmine for the DNA Vanessa needs to sample.

It’s not easy to collect either. Collecting samples from beached or hunted whales was once the only option, and far from ideal. 

“More recently, marine scientists have been using poles with collection devices at the end to collect whale snot but this means close approaches to whales. The use of drones is a great non-invasive option which lets us to collect whale snot from free-swimming humpback whales.”

The FameLab experience has given Vanessa the opportunity to share her research across Australia, competing at the national finals in Perth later this year. If you’re thinking of entering? Just do it, says Vanessa.

Every PhD project has a creative story to be told.” she advises. “Think about an aspect of your research or an interesting finding that has the potential to be transformed into something relevant to a non-scientific audience.”

“FameLab is a great opportunity to meet people and gain new skills as a scientist. It’s definitely worth entering.”

Follow Vanessa on Twitter: @VanessaPirotta


Vanessa’s path to study marine biology:

> > Bachelor of Science, Australian National University

> > Research Assistant, Macquarie University

> > Master of Research, Macquarie University

> > PhD in marine megafauna conservation, Macquarie University

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