Beyond the lab: Baylor researchers celebrate STEM Day at local schools

Dr. Sarah Kienle, assistant professor of biology, teaches students at J.H. Hines Elementary School about leopard seals. Photo courtesy of Matthew Minard

By Caleb Wheeler | Staff Writer

From Antarctica to elementary schools, a group of researchers has traveled far beyond the lab due to their work on leopard seals.

To celebrate STEM Day, assistant professor of biology Dr. Sarah Kienle went to local schools and taught students about her work. She was joined by Jacksonville, Fla., graduate student Nicholi Brown and Waterbury, Conn., graduate student Pat Bailey.

“As we don’t know that much about [leopard seals], we don’t know if they’re in danger because we don’t even know how many leopard seals there are on the planet,” Kienle said. “We don’t know where they go to have babies. We don’t really know that much about what the babies look like or how long they spend with their moms. So there’s a lot of really basic questions about leopard seals we don’t know the answer to, and so that’s where my lab is coming in and doing a lot of research.”

Kienle shared that research Wednesday at Connally High School, G.W. Carver Middle School and J.H. Hines Elementary School. According to a Baylor news release, the time was meant to feature “grade-aligned, experiential projects” that would “help encourage an affinity for science, technology, engineering and math in local students.”

“I love working with kids because the questions they ask are so on point,” Kienle said. “They’re exactly the questions I’m doing a ton of research on and trying to get … grant money to answer, because it’s not already known.”

One focus of Kienle and her team is identifying leopard seals, marking them and monitoring them. As a result, Kienle led a station where students could tag their own seal tail.

“One of the things we want to do is keep track of them,” Kienle said. “What are they doing through time, and how can we keep track of them?”

Meanwhile, Brown led a station where students could match seal pictures. Her job on the team is to identify seals across images, which often entails looking through hundreds or thousands of images.

“[Everyone] has different fingerprints. None of you all have the same pattern on your fingerprints,” Brown said. “Similarly, leopard seals also have unique spots and scars that they don’t share with any other individuals within the population. … If we have different pictures of various leopard seals that we’re trying to parse through, we can tell who it is based upon the spots that are on their face or on their side or on their flippers.”

Bailey led the final station where students learned how to measure leopard seals, using measuring tapes to find the lengths of various parts of inflatable seals and recording the information on a data sheet.

“Being big is a really great thing for a leopard seal,” Kienle said. “It’s hard to figure that out just by looking at them, so what we can do is we can actually take measurements to figure out more about them.”

The three visited several classrooms. After the event, students left with new knowledge about leopard seals and free tagged seal tails.

Caleb Wheeler
Caleb Wheeler is a freshman University Scholar from Tulsa, Oklahoma. My concentrations are in journalism and professional writing with a minor in legal reasoning. In my first year with the Lariat I am excited to experience what it is like to work for a professional publication and further my writing abilities. After graduation I hope to attend Baylor Law School.