Hard Work Seals European Internship

Callan Tweedie’s new best friend, Nick, is a European fellow, and while she doesn’t have his language quite mastered, they have been having some good interchanges this summer as they hang around the water near Rostock, Germany.

When she tells him hoch, he’ll jump out of the water and touch her hand. When she commands sag was, he will indeed speak to her. And when she suggests flosse, he’ll offer his appendage.

Of course, the 270+-pound Nick touches her hand with his nose, speaks in barks and growls and instead of a hand offers her his flipper.

Harbor seals are like that.

Tweedie, 20, is working with Nick and other seals and sea lions thanks to the Research Internships in Science and Engineering (RISE) scholarship she landed from the prestigious German Academic Exchange Service (DAAD), the German government’s scholarship and educational agency for international students.

The rising senior biology major (with a German studies minor and honors concentration) at Rowan University won the scholarship and internship from among 17 applicants from around the world.

For three months, she is working at the Marine Science Center in Rostock, helping a Ph.D. student from the Universität Rostock with his research project that involves studying how harbor seals travel and recall their routes back to their starting point.

During her internship, Tweedie is living at the Center in the Hohe Düne Marina, just next to the small town of Warnemünde, on a boat called the Lichtenberg. The boat is outfitted with a full-sized kitchen and dining room, three bedrooms, eight offices and a classroom. She has worked with students from the United States, Holland and China, as well as Germany.

“Nine harbor seals and three sea lions live in the enclosure around the boat. The sea lions – all they do is play night and day. They know all the same commands as the seals, but because they want to play, everything is a game to them,” she said. “I’ve gotten used to hearing sea lions barking all day and night. Not hearing them after I return home will be sad!”

Tweedie, from Glassboro, helps set up experiments, take measurements and analyze data. She also is assisting several other students at the research center who are working on their Ph.D. projects.

She’s not just fond of Nick; she also appreciates his abilities. He has learned to distinguish certain distances and has memorized various ones. The research team rewards each success with positive reinforcement: a scoop of Baltic herring.

Teams at the Center conduct extensive research, most focused on how seals travel in the wild, studying their movements, their ability to avoid obstacles and the way they find food in the brackish water in Germany that diminishes visibility.

The work may impact bionics, which applies the way living things function to mechanical systems. Eventually, researchers could use the data for designing robots, said Tweedie, who also conducts medical exams on the animals.

“I am learning a lot of animal training. I am learning the commands that they know in German and learning how to work with them properly. They are incredibly smart animals, and I'm enjoying this part very much,” Tweedie noted. 

While the internship comes with much work, the opportunity also allows for some fun.

“I got the chance to swim with two of the seals, Sam and Luca, one weekend. Visitors pay roughly $280 to do this, and my mentor let me do it for free. It was amazing,” said Tweedie, who lived in Germany for a year as a child and has visited a few times since then.

She also spent a week in Berlin, visiting her sister, Tara, and she plans to return there and visit Rostock and some other towns before coming home in August. “I travel to Warnemünde often, which is the closet town to the marina that I live in. It is an adorable town with a beach and many cute shops and restaurants,” she said.

Before she heads home in August, Tweedie – who hopes to become a veterinarian – will present on the research she has conducted to several hundred people attending the DAAD RISE conference in Heidelberg, Germany.