shark lab alumni:

where are they now?

One of the most common questions we have from prospective volunteers is "what are some of the career paths previous volunteers have taken?" We are proud to have very successful Alumni, and below are some examples of Shark Labber's lives post Bimini! Also check out our esteemed Board of Directors page for more!

Jill brooks

I first volunteered with the lab in the Summer of 2007 after I had completed a degree in marine biology and zoology in the UK. I didn't know what I wanted to do for a career at that point but I knew I needed some hands on experience in the field, and if I'm honest, 2 months in the Bahamas was more attractive than any potential career benefits! I obviously fell in love with the island, the sharks, and the work that BBFS did, so had to return the following year to volunteer for the PIT project, and even that didn't put me off! I joined the Jupiter team the following year to tag adult lemons and bulls in Florida. Since then I was hired as an Assistant Manager and then a Manager of the station, for a total of about 4.5 years in Bimini :) After working on so many cool projects and training a lot of students to conduct their own research, it was time I got my own project so I left the marine environment and made the switch to freshwater for grad school. My grades from my undergraduate degree would not get me into any grad program, but the skills I learned at BBFS (both fieldwork and managerial) got me through. I absolutely would not be where I am in my career if it wasn't for the lab, and Doc and Marie Gruber! 

 

I'm currently in my final year of my PhD thesis, working in the Laurentian Great Lakes where I use the same equipment and analyses as I did when I was working in Bimini, only in smaller fish, and with much less salt. During my degree here in Canada I've been able to keep connected with so many Shark Lab alumni (it's a very small world!), and been involved with several sharkie projects. I am working with the American Shark Conservancy on a recreational shark fishing project, where we collaborate with anglers to figure out what sharks are being caught, with what methods, and how many survive after they have been released. I'm still unsure of my future career path even after all these years, but I know I enjoy research, tracking animals, teaching students, and communicating science- so hopefully, eventually, I will find a permanent job that allows me to keep doing all of these :)   

Paddy Burke

The Shark Lab. The place of sharks, rescue pups and Kaliks. I was lucky enough to spend quite a bit of time in this little sharky paradise. First as a volunteer back in 2013 – 2014, then as a Masters student in 2016 and finally as a staff member from 2016 to 2017. Through all of this time I learned more than I ever thought I would when I first set out in 2013. Now I am a PhD candidate at Macquarie University in Sydney, Australia studying the ecology of two species of sawsharks around Australia. While it may be hard to put into words, I am going to try to explain why the SharkLab was instrumental in my marine science journey. 

I knew I wanted to be involved in marine science since I was young. However, I happened to be born in Kentucky, USA, so our nearest ocean was about nine hours away. Ever since then I was trying to find opportunities to be by the coast. First, was heading to the College of Charleston, SC to complete an undergraduate degree in marine biology. Like many, after completing my degree I was uncertain as to what the next step was to continue my career. Should I do a post-graduate degree or should I find some job to get experience or should is there something else? This is where my google searches first led me to the Shark Lab and my eventual application to volunteer and was lucky enough to be accepted. 

I came to Bimini with a mind like a sponge. I wanted to see, learn and soak up all the knowledge I could from the incredible people around me. What this meant as a volunteer was a mix of activities that changed daily from fishing for sharks to collect data, helping organize data, fixing or maintaining a wide array of equipment needed for the fieldwork or helping maintain the day-to-day life at a field station. One of the most beneficial aspects of being a volunteer at the Shark Lab is that the harder you work and the longer you are there, the more responsibility you are given. One example is the opportunity of leading teams of other volunteers in the field which provides valuable experience that stands out for future supervisors and employers as it highlights an ability to lead and work independently to achieve your goals. 

The Shark Lab is fantastic for marine science and sharks but also for its more critical component, its people. The Shark Lab seems to attract a lot of like-minded people, which is not all that surprising. That like-mindedness and the copious amounts of time together is a fantastic recipe for great friendships. Certainly, something I cherish even years after leaving the Shark Lab. Furthermore, one thing I realized only after I left the lab was that many prominent researchers in the field of shark science have some form of connection with the lab at some point in their careers. Whether this was as a volunteer themselves, a collaborative research project or simply being pulled into the eccentric, larger than life personality of the Shark Labs founder Dr. Samuel Gruber. I find it likely that the Shark Lab has positively impacted their life as it has mine. Unequivocally, my time in Bimini was instrumental for my career and some of the best memories in my life. I can’t recommend it enough.

Photo:Malini Pittet

ornella weideli

One thing first, without Doc and Marie, I would not be where I am. I would not be who I am. I would not have experienced what I did, and I would not have had the opportunity to meet some of the most inspiring, driven, and passionate people. But let’s start from the beginning...

 

After finishing my B.Sc. in Cell Biology from the University of Bern, Switzerland in 2009, I knew it was time to follow my dream to become a marine biologist. The best way to do that seemed to me to find an internship in a marine field station. After several hours on Google, I found the Shark Lab, applied, and got accepted as a volunteer for three months. Although until this point in time I hadn’t seen a shark in the wild, I immediately fell in love with these fascinating animals. So, after finishing the internship, I immediately registered for a M.Sc. in Animal Biology at the University of Basel, Switzerland and returned to the Shark Lab. This time I extended my time at the Lab and stayed for eight months to collect data on the diet of juvenile lemon sharks for my thesis. After graduating in the summer of 2012, I knew even more that I wanted to continue my studies in shark ecology. After working for a few shark-related research projects in Florida, Seychelles, and French Polynesia, I got accepted as a PhD student at the newly opened Save Our Seas Foundation – D’Arros Research Centre (SOSF-DRC) in Seychelles. Through my vast international network - that also includes many Shark Lab alumni - I quickly succeeded in building up a collaboration between the SOSF-DRC, the French University EPHE, and the French laboratory the CRIOBE. So, for the next four years I put all my focus on niche partitioning and the feeding ecology of co-existing juvenile reef sharks. In other words, I was trying to understand how two similar juvenile shark species can coexist in a small and remote atoll without outcompeting each other. In the summer of 2020 - in the midst of the COVID-19 pandemic - I defended my PhD. Not as usual in front of an audience followed by big celebrations, but virtually from my desk at home followed by a small gathering with friends and family. 

 

Now, a half a year later, while I continue working on multiple shark-related research studies, I’m also expanding my efforts and engagements to other areas. I work part-time in a medical lab where I coordinate a COVID-19 study, I continue to raise awareness about sharks through outreach activities, I joined an association with which I’ll lead scientific shark expeditions in the near future, and I mentor and guide younger students through my affiliation with the American Shark Conservancy. 

 

For now, these projects are keeping me very busy, but I also look forward to what else the future might hold for me. Whatever it is, I’ll always be thankful to you, Doc and Marie, for creating the Shark Lab and for showing to so many of us how you can make your dreams come true.

matthew smukall

I grew up in Central Florida, spending many weekends and summers at the local beach or intercoastal waterway. My mother was a marine biology teacher, and often our trips to the beach resembled a field trip for identifying marine species. Upon enrolling at The University of Florida for my undergraduate studies, I explored several degrees and career paths. I spent time on track for aerospace engineering, veterinary medicine, and building construction, however, I always had a keen interest in nature and found myself settled on a degree in Wildlife Ecology and Conservation. Following my graduation in 2009, I knew I needed to get more field experience and landed an fisheries internship in Alaska. After three years in the northern wilderness, it was apparent that I eventually wanted to return to a tropical marine environment. 

 

I volunteered for the first time at the Bimini Shark Lab in 2012, and subsequently returned two additional times. In 2015, I enrolled as a PhD student at the University of Alaska Fairbanks and returned to the Shark Lab to focus my research on studying tiger sharks around Bimini. Through the ingenuity of online courses and video conferencing, I was able to simultaneously conduct my field work in Bimini while also conducting course work with UAF.  As I neared the end of my PhD studies, Dr. Gruber asked me to take over his role as president of BBFSF. It was an immense honor, and often overwhelming, to follow in the footsteps of Dr. Gruber and all of the distinguished BBFSF researchers that came before me. However, this has been a dream position and I am dedicated to ensure that BBFSF offers the same opportunities to future scientists that it afforded me.

felicie dhellemmes

I am originally from the North of France where my access to the Ocean was limited to occasional summer holiday excursions. I applied to volunteer at the Shark Lab in 2012. At the time I was finishing a Masters in Engineering and I was frantically looking for a place to do my Masters thesis project, with the hopes of doing it in an aquaculture farm. But the farms didn't want me!  After seeing the Shark Lab on TV, my flatmate suggested that I should apply there and see what comes of it. Just a few days after applying, I received the news that the Lab was looking for a master student interested in animal behaviour! Hurray! Not long after, I took my plane tickets to the unknown!

 

I had little to no knowledge about sharks upon arrival, but being surrounded by shark enthusiasts day and night fixed this very quickly: I soon took part into a "shark ID group" where we tried to identify species on pictures and use their latin names. For six months I collected data for my masters, which was a success with even a paper published! I was offered to continue the project as a PhD student, taking over the work of JS Finger, who had supervised me until then.

 

I stayed at the lab 3.5 years as a principle investigator, and collected a TON of data on shark personality. Once collected, data must be analysed and written up. I settled in Berlin, Germany to go through this tedious part. While writing, I took part in two extra scientific projects, which I call my "science hobbies”. I worked on billfish behaviour and morphology, and I worked on figuring out the impact of canoe tourism on breeding bird assemblages in a national park.

 

In these years I completed my hard earned field skills with statistical skills and writing skills which will be helpful for my future career. My PhD thesis is now written, with two papers published and one submitted (and two paper published on my "science hobbies"), and I am hoping to defend really soon. I have just landed my first post doc position, working on the behaviour of a brackish population of northern pike in the baltic sea!

emily heale

I am a Biologist in Kenai, Alaska, working for Cook Inlet Aquaculture Association (CIAA) which is a nonprofit organization with a goal to provide and protect the salmon resource. There are two sides to CIAA—hatcheries and special projects. CIAA has three operational hatcheries that raise pink, coho, and sockeye salmon to fry or smolt stage for releases into Alaskan waters. I work on the special projects side of the organization where we conduct a variety of field work which includes; smolt and adult salmon enumeration, beaver dam surveys, limnology sampling, lake fertilization, invasive species surveys and control, and various outreach activities.

 

I work with another biologist to hire and train a seasonal field crew to work our field projects during the summer. It is our job to oversee these projects and at the end of the field season we are responsible for data input, analysis and report writing. As biologists we also get to apply for grant funding for various projects we would like to conduct; in other words we have a say in what types of projects we carry out each season.

 

Volunteering at the Shark Lab was a memorable experience that I will not forget anytime soon. It also helped me learn a lot about myself and what I am capable of as a scientist. I continue to use skills that I gained while working at the Lab!

Paloma Cartwright

Growing up in The Bahamas, I have always been fascinated with and inspired by the ocean. When I was 9 years old, I began volunteering with the Family Island Research and Education Foundation documenting turtle populations throughout the Islands of The Bahamas. This fostered a love for conservation that continued to be a driving force in my life, and I accepted every opportunity to work with marine life in The Bahamas, whether it was marine mammals, turtles or sharks. 

My internship at the Shark Lab aided in guiding my future plans. I was fascinated by the years of data collected through research especially knowing it is thorough enough to be able to draw up family trees for the shark populations in Bimini. I loved having hands on experience with sharks and stingrays and knowing that I was able to contribute to collecting this data. I realized that that this information could be used in various ways to aid in protecting shark populations in The Bahamas. 

I am in my final semester at McGill University, studying Computer Science with a minor in Environment. My goal is to pursue a master’s degree in Environmental Data Science, with a focus on Marine and Atmospheric Science. I have always wanted to find a way to combine my love for the environment with my computer science degree. This master’s degree will allow me to do that by providing me with the skills to be able to analyze data to help find solutions to our many environmental problems. It is my hope to return to The Bahamas and use my education to assist with efforts to protect marine life throughout our archipelago.

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