I wanted to study under Dr. Dean Grubbs, who is one of the best shark biologists in the world.
Motivation to pursue a graduate degree
I have always been very inquisitive about marine life. As I grew older, I started asking questions that had yet to be answered. I chose to pursue a graduate degree so I could conduct research to answer these questions. These questions include topics related to spatial ecology, social behavior, and fisheries science; so, the benefits put forth by my research have a real conservation value.
Importance and impact of research
My dissertation research is focused on the spatiotemporal ecology of the bonnethead shark. Bonnetheads have recently been shown to be more susceptible to overfishing than previously believed. In some years, over 400,000 bonnetheads are killed by shrimp trawlers. My research will increase the resolution of understanding the spatiotemporal dynamics of bonnethead movements, i.e. when and where do bonnetheads occur. This increased resolution will allow conservation efforts to be put in place to protect bonnetheads from overlapping with shrimp trawlers, which will subsequently result in healthier populations. These healthier populations can potentially have numerous benefits to the entire ecosystem. Another chapter of my dissertation is focused on determining if sharks use the earth’s magnetic field as a compass during migration. Many species of sharks conduct long-distance migrations and return to the same exact locations each year. How do these sharks maintain high levels of navigational success without a GPS, roadmaps, etc? We believe the sharks are using the earth’s geomagnetic field as a compass, as this has been shown to occur within sea turtle, lobsters, salmon and other species. This research has important ramifications for conservation biology. If we can determine what mechanisms sharks use to navigate during migration, then we can better protect these species during critical life stages. This research would be applicable to many species of sharks and not just bonnetheads. A final chapter of my dissertation address where bonnetheads give birth. Our research has shown that pupping grounds have high overlap with areas where shrimp trawling occurs. This overlap results in high mortality of newborn bonnetheads. Without protection for these pups, the entire population could suffer due to low recruitment. Delineating pupping grounds is important for conservation of the stock as this is one of the most vulnerable life stages for any species.
I hope to become a professor where I can continue researching vulnerable and exploited marine and estuarine fishes. My research will fill voids critical to effectively managing these groups of imperiled species. Throughout this process, I hope to inspire students through outreach and advising so that future generations of scientists may also work to conserve our planet’s natural resources. In addition to being a professor, I hope to serve on specialist committees to ensure policy decisions are being made by using the best available science.
Advice for anyone considering graduate school
Graduate school is a wild ride! I think many students end up pursuing graduate school because it seems as a logical progression from their undergrad. I would encourage students to identify careers of interest and determine if enrolling in graduate school would be of their best interest. Perhaps graduate school would not help in advancing your career goals and some other sort of technical training would be more beneficial. For those who are sure graduate school is for them, I would develop a project proposal before contacting potential advisors. Advisors get contacted by countless students asking if they have funding or if they are taking students. You need to stand out to succeed. If you approach a potential advisor with a project proposal (relevant to the advisor’s lab!!) in hand, they will know you have seriously thought about their lab and graduate school. It will also give the advisor a chance to read your writing. You will likely not complete the proposed project, but the effort you put forth could be well worth it. I would also recommend identifying specific funding opportunities that you would apply to if accepted.
Accomplishments during graduate career
My research project was independent of my advisor’s (Dr. Dean Grubbs). As such, I had to raise the vast majority of my own money. Throughout my PhD I applied to ~85 opportunities and raised over $108,000 in scholarships (notable: Aylesworth Foundation, Guy Harvey, Marine Technology Society) and grants (notable: Save Our Seas Foundation, Nat Geo, Sea World, FL sea grant). Applying for these opportunities was like a part-time job but it was well worth it. I am also proud that I will complete my PhD in 3.5 years. My PhD is based on collecting data from the annual migrations of bonnethead sharks, so graduating ahead of schedule is not due to my dissertation being focused on data that was already available. The 3.5 years includes gaining funding, so I really had to put my head to the grindstone to push through. I am excited to announce that I was selected as a 2020 John A Knauss Marine Policy Fellow. I will be working with NOAA for one year in Washington DC to better understand policy formation.