Jessica Kendall-Bar, who received a PhD in ecology and evolutionary biology last year from UC Santa Cruz, was named a recipient of the Science & SciLifeLab Prize for Young Scientists for her research on elephant seal sleep habits while they are at sea.

As a category winner in Ecology and Environment, Kendall-Bar had her essay recently published by Science. She received a $10,000 prize and will soon be headed to the Nobel Prize week in Stockholm to present her research at The Royal Academy of Sciences, where the Nobel Prize in Physics and Chemistry are announced. 

“I am grateful for the opportunity to meet the other prize winners and attend the Nobel award ceremony in Sweden in December,” Kendall-Bar says in a release. 

Kendall-Bar’s research, which was first published in Science in April, was said to be the first time scientists had recorded brain activity in a free-ranging, wild marine mammal. Her research found that while elephant seals may spend 10 hours a day sleeping on the beach during the breeding season, they sleep less than two hours a day in the months they are foraging at sea. 

To conduct her research, Kendall-Bar designed a new submersible system for electroencephalogram (EEG) recordings of wild northern elephant seals. Her research found that they sleep bilaterally during deep, 30-minute dives, often spiraling downward while fast asleep. She transformed her data into data-driven animations of underwater physiology and behavior using a custom visualization pipeline to identify a distinctive biomechanical signature for sleep.

Kendall-Bar wrote an algorithm to estimate sleep from 334 time-depth records, creating a range-wide “sleepscape.” This unparalleled sleep duration flexibility challenges assumptions of baseline mammalian sleep requirements with implications for understanding sleep deprivation. 

“These ‘sleepscapes’ can help guide the protection and management of critical resting habitats for marine animals,” Kendall-Bar says in a release. “I am passionate about using data-driven visualizations to connect us to otherwise invisible underwater ecosystems.”

Kendall-Bar is currently a Schmidt AI in Science Postdoctoral Fellow at Scripps Institution of Oceanography at UC San Diego. Her research investigates the resilience and precarity of ocean ecosystems through neurophysiology, signal processing, and advanced data visualization.

The Science & SciLifeLab Prize is an international prize awarded by the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the journal Science to early career scientists for their thesis research in the life sciences. 

Photo caption: Data-driven graphic showing sleeping postures every 20 seconds and accompanying 30-second segments of EEG traces in the background.

Photo credit: Graphic by Jessica Kendall-Bar