Taking research to new places: Killam scholar trades Atlantic coast for expansive mountain ranges

- April 22, 2024

Biology PhD student Sam Walmsley travelled to Zurich, Switzerland last year after receiving the inaugural Killam International Research Award. (Provided photo)
Biology PhD student Sam Walmsley travelled to Zurich, Switzerland last year after receiving the inaugural Killam International Research Award. (Provided photo)

This article is part of a series profiling the inaugural Killam International Research Award recipients who traveled abroad in 2023. 

This time last year, biology PhD student Sam Walmsley was carrying out his research on an endangered population of northern bottlenose whales found in waters close to Nova Scotia — but he was far from the Atlantic coast himself.

Walmsley was one of three recipients selected for the inaugural Killam International Research Award launched in the fall of 2022, which provides rich global experiences for exceptional Killam scholars by offsetting the costs of undertaking research outside of Canada for up to three months.

The award gave Walmsley the opportunity to travel to Zurich, Switzerland from March to May of last year, where he worked with professor Dr. Adrian Jaeggi, who leads a lab investigating the evolution and ecology of human behaviour.

Understanding whale societies

Walmsley’s research aims to uncover the evolutionary origins and functions of whale societies, which share some similarities with human societies that aren’t found in any other animal groups.

“Understanding why these similarities arose despite such different physical environments will allow us to explain the evolution of these traits across species,” he says.

“Studying whales can offer a unique window into the origins of social living, meaning that we can ask questions like 'Why do some species form friendships and not others?' or 'What prompts individuals to cooperate with non-relatives?' For whales specifically, understanding how individuals interact with one another and share knowledge can become important for conservation. For example, social patterns may affect a population’s susceptibility for disease, or influence risky group movements as seen in mass stranding events.”

The Killam International Research Award exposed Walmsley to cutting-edge quantitative tools developed by researchers at the University of Zurich, serving as a lens into evolutionary history and helping to explain the origins of social complexity.

“Though originally applied to human evolution, applying this method to whales allows us to ask new questions like 'Were ancient whale species solitary, or did they rely on others?' This allowed me to expand my research beyond Nova Scotian waters to compare and model societies from whale and dolphin species all around the world.”

International immersion

The opportunity to expand his research in a major way wasn’t the only highlight of Walmsley’s trip.

“It was thrilling to immerse myself in the academic environment at the University of Zurich and the cultural environment of Zurich itself. Outside of my studies, I was able to explore the local mountains, consume many delicious cheeses, and even float down the Limmat River in an inflatable boat with my lab mates one Sunday afternoon. I am enormously grateful to professor Jaeggi and the members of his lab who made it such an interesting and enjoyable experience,” he says.

Walmsley describes being a Killam Scholar as an incredible privilege, granting him the opportunity to explore ideas with global experts in his field.

“Applying the new methods I was exposed to in Zurich to whale populations allows me to expand the scope of my thesis and situate my study of northern bottlenose whales in a wider evolutionary context,” he says. “There is a growing recognition that human impacts can disrupt the social structure of wild animals, which in turn can have consequences for the survival of the population. By monitoring and learning from these whales, I hope that we can continue to ensure their protection for years to come.”

Learn more about the Killam advantage and opportunities at Dalhousie University.

Recommended reading: New Dal‑based Killam award opens (lab) door for tumour researcher (from the same series)


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