My Bimini Shark Lab Story
The story of how I got to the Bimini Shark Lab starts years ago.
As a freshman at a large research university, I was bombarded with advice. One piece of advice that was repeated by colleagues, professors, graduate students, and advisors was to get into a lab as soon as possible. Without any connections and still learning how to navigate a large campus, this piece of advice, although sound, led to anxiety with each new week. At the end of year, I scheduled a meeting with my advisor to plan my courses for the next three years. In her office was a poster of a basking shark. On my way out, I turned around and said: “That is a beautiful poster.” She responded by telling me about a graduate student looking for undergraduates to help with a project on shark social behavior. I sent her (Dr. Alexandra McInturf) my resume and transcript and finally got into a lab. Little did I know at the time, but this opportunity has shaped my career goals and set me on the path that I continue down today.
I came into college majoring in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology with the goal of studying terrestrial ecosystems. The same summer that I began working with Dr. McInturf, I was an informal educator intern at the Birch Aquarium in San Diego. I found myself living in the moment, invested in learning what I could in every second I spent in the water. This led me to add oceanography as a minor.
When I started working on the shark social behavior literature review, I was one of the many collecting information. Working on a literature analysis allowed me the unique chance to not just learn about one species but about hundreds of shark species as well as the role of elasmobranchs in ecosystems all over the world. As the years progressed, I gained more of a leadership role and was able to run meetings and answer questions about the project. I am now one of the authors on our paper. After spending just over three years reading about sharks, I wanted to experience the research that has inspired me to pursue a career in ocean science. This led me to apply to the Bimini Biological Field Station, or Bimini Shark Lab. I had known about the lab since my very first months of working with Dr. McInturf, as she had been an intern at the lab herself.
Almost a year into working on the shark social behavior project, the pandemic started and halted in-person research and classes. As a student majoring in Wildlife, Fish, and Conservation Biology, field experience was not only important in internship opportunities but embedded within my classes. I was disappointed to have these opportunities taken from me, but I found ways to keep my research spark alive. I was able to keep building skills in data collection and management, leadership, teamwork, and scientific writing through this project. In the moments where I felt at a loss in my education, I was lucky to be reading and learning about elasmobranchs everyday. The project became an outlet for me. Each week, I virtually met with a group of wonderful people and we discussed what we had learned and had a space for asking questions and exploring ourselves as early career scientists. In addition to the community that this project provided for me, I am perpetually fascinated by everything there is to learn about sharks: both what we know and what we don’t know. As fortunate as I am to have had this opportunity and to continue to have this opportunity, my goal after graduation was to obtain hands-on experience in elasmobranch ecology.
I’ve known that I was going to apply to the Bimini Biological Field Station for years. About a year into working on the shark behavior project, some of the people in our group applied for the Bimini Shark Lab internship. At the time, I was just starting out in my undergraduate degree and wanted to build up my experience so that I could join the lab as the best version of myself. The pandemic threw everything for a loop, but I never gave up on my goal to join the Bimini Shark Lab. Following graduation, I already had a job lined up for the summer and fall, so I was looking for opportunities in the new year.
Finally filling out the application brought me a sense of accomplishment. This was an internship that I had the intent to apply to for three years, and I finally had the time and energy to put into not only writing an application to the best of my ability but being a good intern if I were to obtain the internship. I waited with uncertainty for what the new year would bring and was elated to learn that I would be spending my first three months of 2023 with the Bimini Shark Lab.
I wanted to join the Bimini Shark Lab for multiple reasons: in-person experience with sharks, to be a part of and participate in the shark research community, and to continue learning and educating myself on elasmobranchs and their varying environments. My first week at the Bimini Shark Lab I swam with nurse sharks, southern stingrays, green sea turtles, loggerhead turtles, countless fishes, hammerhead sharks, Caribbean reef sharks, and a bull shark even paid us a visit. It is difficult to put into words the happiness it brings me to see the words from research papers brought alive by watching nurse sharks feed, hammerheads swim, and Caribbean reef sharks aggregate.
I spent February and the beginning of April in the Florida Keys participating in research with the Shark Lab. Some of the skills that I was able to learn are shark measurement and handling while on a boat, fin clipping, muscle sampling, tagging with dart tags, and taking blood samples. Not to mention, gaining practice being a deckhand on a boat. I have had to learn quickly and while that certainly comes with mistakes, it also is a great way to learn. At the end of the day, I could read a paper about how to tag a shark but that would never compare to learning in the field on a live shark thrashing against the side of a boat. The biggest lesson that I learned during this research experience is that I need to believe in myself.
In addition to my research goals, I also want to incorporate education and outreach into whatever research I do as a graduate student and beyond. Coming into this experience, I was fascinated by the Bimini Shark Lab because they not only offer amazing experience in research but are dedicated to education and outreach. In addition to gaining valuable research experience, I have been fortunate enough to build skills in public speaking, education, and outreach throughout my time with the Bimini Shark Lab. By giving tours, talking with high school students, and working with college courses when they come to the lab, I have been able to share my love and knowledge of sharks with so many people. For me, this is one of the most rewarding aspects of science. We do all of this research with the hope that we will make a difference. Education is one of the most important avenues for making sure that research being conducted makes a real difference in the conservation efforts of these animals. During a presentation I gave to a high school class, a student asked me what she could do being that she does not live somewhere close to the water with sharks. My answer for her was to talk about what she learned here today and whatever else she learns about sharks. Spread the word, educate others, talk about your fascination…this is one of the best and most simple ways for anyone to get involved in shark conservation.
An important factor in why I wanted to be an intern at the Bimini Shark Lab was to be a part of the shark research community, especially those beginning in the field and navigating a similar life stage as I currently am. A majority of the people in the lab are in their next steps following an undergraduate degree and having that in common with those around me made me feel more grounded. The community that I walked into here at the lab is one where everyone genuinely wants you to learn and wants to teach you all that they can. There is support and room for growth in the atmosphere of the lab, which is something I greatly appreciate. I am thankful for each person here at the Shark Lab for creating a warm, welcoming, and educational environment.