A Deep Dive into Blubber Samples Yields a Novel Method to Study Whales

Jillian Wisse

Ecology doctoral student Jillian Wisse studies a species of pilot whale that dives especially deep. To learn more about how they relate to their environment, she sought specialized training at the National Institute of Standards and Technology’s Hollings Marine Laboratory in Charleston, South Carolina.

Wisse was among 18 Duke University students who received Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants (GSTEG) in 2017-2018 from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies for training beyond their core disciplines. Her faculty mentor was Douglas Nowacek.

She provided an update on her GSTEG experience.

My dissertation work explores the physiology of a deep-diving whale species. To understand how these animals relate to their environment, I am collecting small tissue samples to analyze for a suite of hormones, which can tell us about the reproductive state, sexual maturity, and stress of animals. With the Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grant, I developed a novel method for the analysis of these target molecules.

Jillian Wisse's focal species

To complete this work, I traveled to the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), where I worked with a leading endocrine researcher to learn hormone extraction and tandem mass spectrometry. With her guidance, I developed a novel analysis method, which will allow scientists to conduct more efficient and comprehensive hormone analyses of these tissue samples, aiding efforts to understand the behavior and physiology of these difficult-to-access animals.

Through this opportunity, I gained experience with a technique at the forefront of my field, began a collaboration with an influential mentor, and developed the backbone of my dissertation work.

Hollings Marine Lab


This internal funding mechanism from the Office of the Vice Provost for Interdisciplinary Studies encourages doctoral and master’s students to step away from their core research and training to acquire skills, knowledge, or co-curricular experiences that will give them new perspectives on their research agendas. Graduate Student Training Enhancement Grants are intended to deepen preparation for academic positions and other career trajectories.

  • Read other GSTEG updates from the 2017-18 grantees.
  • See who received GSTEG grants for 2018-19.


Photos courtesy of Jillian Wisse: In the field; focal species; Hollings Marine Lab, where NIST is housed