Ruth Joy

Biostatistician at the Marine Mammal Research Unit, University of British Columbia

I began my career as a biologist living out of a rusty van in the Chilcotin grasslands of British Columbia. My first data form had a round circle where I recorded all the birds I could hear within a fixed radius. From this start, I have worked in most of the ecosystems of the province participating in studies on threatened bird species such as long-billed curlews, sage thrashers, western screech owls and white-headed woodpeckers, and such threatened mammals as woodland caribou, timber wolves and bats. Over these eight years of collecting and analyzing data, I began to realize that my toolbox as a biologist was missing many statistical skills. In the fall of 1999, I returned to Simon Fraser University to develop those skills by pursuing a Master’s degree in Statistics under the supervision of Dr. Rick Routledge.

Since graduating, I have made the leap from terrestrial species to those in marine ecosystems and now work as the biostatistician at the Marine Mammal Research Unit at the University of British Columbia. Here I work on a wide array of scientific questions about species we know very little about. A particular focus has been the 70% decline in the Steller sea lion population in Alaska’s Aleutian Islands and whether commercial fisheries played some role in this decline. Our group has a number of captive sea lions on which we can test many hypotheses about the physiological and behavioral response of sea lions to changes in abundance and quality of food. One part of my work is designing and analyzing data from these experiments.

There is also a statistical consulting aspect to my work, in which I help biologists with the analysis of many kinds of relatively complex data. I have worked on interpreting acoustic recordings of transient killer whales, investigating behavioral responses of gray whales to seismic surveys for oil drilling, lactation rates of beluga whales, reconstructing diet from animal scats, and much more. I am continuously challenged to learn new approaches to data that come from studies that were not designed but rather observational in nature. It is in this capacity that I can use my statistical skills to help biologists answer some of the intriguing questions about survival strategies for species who spend a life at sea.

Through my degree from Simon Fraser, I have been able to pursue a career in statistics and biological science, which allows me to still fill in data forms about BC’s threatened species once in a while. Most importantly though, I love what I do and hope that it is making a positive contribution to marine science.