We asked Emma Leonard to explain why marine mammals struggle to coexist with a military presence in their waters.
Your ARP focuses on something a lot of people know very little about: the effects of military sonar on cetaceans, specifically whales.
Yes. Sound is the most important thing in the life of whales. They use it to find food, and change diving patterns all year to find the right temperature of water for mating and birthing. When the military started using mid-frequency sonar after the Cold War, this resulted in a drastic increase in cetacean strandings. What’s happening is the whales and the sonar are interfering with each other, and whales are suffering from decompression sickness from moving up and down too quickly in the water.
You seem to have a passion for marine biology.
I do. My parents met in California, and I have family out there, and we have always visited the ocean. And it’s just so unexplored. I have a thing for outer space, too, but we know more about space than we do the oceans, which cover 75 percent of our planet. Too few people are exploring the waters, and there is so much to be explored.
What else are you passionate about?
In eighth grade, I wanted to be a fashion designer. My mom went to fashion school and worked for Levi’s, and we have bonded over fashion. I work on costume design for the fall and winter theater shows at school, and have every year since I was a freshman. I’m a visual person, a very visual learner.
How will you be presenting your ARP?
I realized my project would be more engaging if I did more than write a paper and cite my sources. I learned that it’s important to recognize that I had to make my own connections and use outside sources to shape them. I had to use my own brain. So, while I wasn’t going to build military-grade sonar, I used Arduino, with a board and wires and coding system. I was able to figure out the ping is in the 40,000 Hz. I realized people don’t know a lot about sonar, so I will do a demonstration with a meter stick to get people to understand how it works under water. I showed this at the Detroit Science Fair where I played the sound of a frequency that we can hear. I won a Naval Science Award for environmental management.
When we take the first course in ARP, people think it’s annoying, but by the end of senior year, you recognize how the experience gives you issues to really talk about, as well as research skills, citation and science writing skills, all of which will be helpful in college and the rest of my life.
What’s next for you?
I’ll be going to the University of Colorado at Boulder because they have an ecology and evolutionary biology program, plus one of the best physics programs, so I’ll minor in geophysics. Their honors program allows students to do a four-year honors thesis, so I can continue with the project I’m doing now, or choose another project to study instead.