Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems and Human Health (2023-2024)


Hypoxia occurs when tissues are deprived of an adequate oxygen supply. This is highly relevant to human disease across multiple clinical settings, including heart attack, stroke, COVID-19 and cancer. 

While human organs are poorly equipped to handle oxygen deprivation, deep-diving whales have adapted an exquisite tolerance for hypoxia, demonstrated by their ability to dive deep, often for hours, while foraging. Studying marine mammals may hold the key to developing new ways to protect hypoxia-sensitive species and create new clinical interventions in relation to human health.

Project Description

This project seeks to enhance understanding of whale behavior and molecular/genetic responses for marine mammal conservation genetics and medical advances in the study of hypoxia on living tissues. Previous teams have used genetics to identify cellular adaptations of deep-diving marine mammals and uncover candidate genes that help these animals cope with low oxygen conditions (i.e., hypoxia). In 2023-2024, the team will use molecular biology, bioengineering and systems biology to test if it is possible to sensitize whale cells to hypoxia and induce tolerance in cells from terrestrial mammals. 

In a parallel approach, the project team will generate novel 3D organoid cultures of whale hearts using previously published protocols to reprogram cells. This will enable the team to study responses to hypoxia, ischemia and pressure in these 3D models, which more closely represent tissue and organ systems, and connect genetic differences in whale and terrestrial organisms with the physiologic function of their organs. 

This project is interdisciplinary and collaborative, with subteams focused on complementary aspects of analysis. Tasks will be divided by the main project aims, with each subteam’s lab work mentored by the faculty members. Collaboration will be facilitated via student-led presentations, including leading journal clubs and presenting findings and progress to the group.

Anticipated Outputs

Peer-reviewed papers with students as coauthors; student participation at international conferences; funding applications; continuation of a science communication website

Student Opportunities

Ideally, this project team will include 2 graduate students and 5 undergraduate students. Undergraduate students with majors in biology, earth and ocean sciences, environmental sciences and policy, marine science and conservation, biomedical engineering and an interest in marine medicine and molecular biology would fit this team, as would students with science communication skills. Graduate students looking to build mentorship and project management skills as active team members would also be ideal applicants.

Team members will gain first-hand research experience through developing questions, data collection, analysis and dissemination of results. They will gain field experience in ethical and safe ways to collect samples from wild marine mammals, principles of recording animal behavior and cutting-edge molecular biology skills in a research laboratory at a top-tier university. Students will conduct writing and analysis exercises that will contribute to a publication with their authorship and will learn to critically evaluate their work. Graduate students will gain leadership and management skills through this unique opportunity to lead an interdisciplinary project. 

Undergraduate students have the option to participate in data work during the summer. All students will have the opportunity to travel to the Duke University Marine Lab in Beaufort, NC for fieldwork during the school year. 


Summer 2023 – Spring 2024

  • Summer 2023 (optional):  Collect data
  • Fall 2023: Engage in further data collection and ongoing lab work
  • Spring 2024: Collect final field data based on weather windows; continue lab work; collaboratively write, review and submit work for publication


Academic credit available for fall and spring semesters; summer funding available

See earlier related team, Learning from Whales: Oxygen, Ecosystems, and Human Health (2021-2022).

Several whales seen from above, swimming in ocean.

Team Leaders

  • Nicola Quick, Nicholas School of the Environment
  • Thomas Schultz, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Jason Somarelli, School of Medicine-Medicine: Medical Oncology
  • Jillian Wisse, Nicholas School of the Environment–Marine Science and Conservation–Ph.D. Student

/graduate Team Members

  • Elza Bouhassira, Juris Doctor
  • Greg Merrill, Ecology-PHD

/undergraduate Team Members

  • Qiyu Fu
  • Laura Gamard, Biology (BS)
  • Cecilia Joshi, Biology (BS)
  • Kaylee McKinzie, Biology (BS)
  • Nicole Read, Biology (BS)

/yfaculty/staff Team Members

  • Andrew Read, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation
  • Zachary Swaim, Nicholas School of the Environment-Marine Science and Conservation

/zcommunity Team Members

  • Andreas Fahlman, Fundacion Oceanografic
  • Kelsey Fisher-Wellman, East Carolina University