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Chatting with ... Parker Levinson

Environmental scientist explains her path to researching penguins and seals in Antarctica. By Lila Reynolds

When Parker Levinson ’18 graduated from Northwestern’s Weinberg College of Arts and Sciences with degrees in environmental science and African studies, she wasn’t sure where to go next. There were no career fairs aimed at her specific majors. Instead, Levinson consulted a handful of supportive professors and an online job board for field research positions.

After applying to a few jobs, Levinson faced a crossroads: Take a traditional office job in Kigali, the capital city of Rwanda, with a salary and benefits or accept a five-month unpaid field research opportunity in a jungle on an island off the coast of Equatorial Guinea, in central Africa. As her friends signed contracts for consulting gigs and heard back from med schools, Levinson followed her instincts and set out for the jungle, where she collected data on leatherback sea turtle breeding and studied primates living in the area.

Almost two years later, Levinson is preparing for her third field season in Antarctica, where she’s been part of National Science Foundation research projects for the past two years, studying penguins and seals. Northwestern Magazine caught up with her to hear about the 2020–21 field season.

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Photo by Parker Levinson
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Photo by Kaitlin MacDonald
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Photo by Parker Levinson

What brought you to Antarctica in October 2020?

I worked on two different projects in Antarctica as a National Science Foundation grantee: the Weddell Seal Project and the Point Blue Conservation Science Adélie penguin research. It was my second year working with penguins but my first time on the seal project.

The seal project looks at population dynamics of Weddell seals in Erebus Bay, right next to McMurdo research station. As a field technician for the project, I was responsible for driving snowmobiles across the frozen sea to access seal breeding colonies. During pupping season (when seals have recently been born), I attached unique identifying tags to each pup and took notes on adult tags. My work was part of a 50-plus year dataset that gives scientists an extremely detailed view into the breeding life of these mammals; we can build maternal family trees, note population changes and monitor the impacts of environmental variables. 

Parker Levinson is wearing a red parka and a maroon knit hat, and she is holding a penguin by its midriff. Icy Antarctica background.

Photo by Annie Schmidt; ACA permit #2021-004

After seal season ended, I moved 70 kilometers across Ross Island to study penguins at one of the world’s largest penguin breeding colonies, with about 300,000 breeding pairs. Similar to the seal work, the goal of this project is to understand population dynamics and changes in response to environmental factors. Unlike seals, we’ve only marked a fraction of penguins with a unique identifier, so a lot of my time was spent searching for those banded penguins and then following their breeding status throughout the season.

It was really special to work on both of these projects and see the incredible longevity and the breadth of information researchers can gather to study populations across decades.

What was your commute like? 

It took the seal team 45 minutes to an hour on a snowmobile to get to our main study area, which was a pupping colony a few miles out on the sea ice. It definitely took some getting used to — I had never ridden a snowmobile before. And luckily Antarctica is the easiest place to learn because the sea ice is flat and there are a lot of people helping out, so you don’t have to worry as much about getting stuck in snow — you can just drive. You do have to monitor for cracks in the sea ice so you can make sure you can cross safely. 

Your face definitely gets really cold. Your body has, like, 15 different layers on, but your face … you still have to see and breathe and make sure your goggles don’t fog up. The first week was incredible, and I kept spending time looking around thinking, “Oh my gosh, this is amazing!” But after a while, when you’re tagging 50 pups a day during peak pupping season, I thought, “Shoot, we really need to get to the field!”

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Has working with penguins and seals influenced what you might want to do next?

The nice thing about working with seals is that it’s noninvasive for the most part. We don’t have to anaesthetize or restrain them, really, because seals kind of sit on the ice and let us work. The thing is, up until 1902 when Capt. Robert Falcon Scott landed in McMurdo, there weren’t people in Antarctica, and neither penguins nor seals have any land predators, so they don’t see us as a threat.

In our research, we are seeing that there are different reproductive strategies: Some seals will breed twice in their whole life, even if they live to 25. But one seal bred almost every year she could, until she was 31! There’s data to see when pups are swimming too. We want to find out if pups that swim more have a higher survival rate — some pups start to swim when they’re five days old, while some don’t ever learn to swim in the time we’re monitoring them. These datasets are amazing — it’s something I want to study more in school.

Since we’re on the subject of going back to school, what experiences at Northwestern felt really foundational to you?

Northwestern taught me to be inquisitive and search for answers independently. I think that’s an important skill going into science and fieldwork, rather than having someone tell me what to do. I’m able to understand why things are happening and what it means for the ecosystem and build from there.

That’s the thing about Northwestern — I was able to make my own path. I had a lot of flexibility within my major to choose different classes and take advantage of extracurriculars through funding opportunities. Working in labs at Northwestern was a good experience because it taught me I don’t want to work in a lab! I found a grant through Northwestern for the summer that allowed me to do unpaid field research — and this experience taught me more about what I do want to do: fieldwork, data analysis and public outreach. Northwestern encouraged my curiosity and gave me opportunities to explore.


Lila Reynolds ’19 is a research science and engineering editor in the Office of Global Marketing and Communications.

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Reader Responses

  • Great article. Kudos to Northwestern for allowing this kind of flexibility in Parker's major so that she could take advantage of these world-class opportunities. Also seems that Parker has learned to be a wonderful photographer along the way!

    Mary McCloskey ’72 MS, Oak Park, Ill.

  • Those are spectacular photos of seals and penguins. Reading the article explains why people are not perceived as predators which allowed the photos to be captured. Marvelous.

    Donald Albertson ’79 MA, Spring Mills, Pa.

  • A sweet and fascinating story and I learned a lot. Brava Parker Levinson. We need more independent and innovative people like you in this world!

    Mary Dedinsky ’70 MS, Chicago and Qatar

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