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Frequently asked questions about sharks (and about me)

Every week on twitter (and every few weeks on my Facebook fan page,) I host a one hour “ask me anything” session. I also give lots of interviews to the press, and occasionally answer high school students’ questions about what my job is like for class projects. Some of the same questions tend to come up over and over. Here are some frequently asked questions and my answers to them.  Feel free to quote anything on this page for a class project or media article and attribute it to me. 

1. What is your job?

A:  I am a Ph.D. candidate and research assistant at the University of Miami. “Candidate” vs. “student” means that I passed my qualifying exams, an important test for graduate students. Research assistant means that my funding comes from doing research and not teaching. Depending on my audience, I’ve also described myself as a marine biologist, a shark researcher, an ecologist, a conservation biologist, a science communicator, or simply a scientist.

2. How would you describe your job?

A: As a scientist, it’s my job to learn new things about our world. As a conservation-minded scientist, it’s my job to learn new things about our world that can help managers to protect threatened species. As a science educator and science communicator, it’s my job to make sure that people who aren’t scientists hear about these important discoveries.

3. What is a typical day on the job like for you?

A: Most days I just spend organizing data in excel or answering e-mails, which is not too different from most people’s jobs. I also spend one or two days a month on the research vessel tagging sharks, and spend some days in the lab organizing samples. I also present my research at scientific conferences and write it up for scientific journals.

4. What is your favorite thing about your job?

A: My favorite thing about being a scientist is that sometimes I get to be the first person to ever know something! Working on a boat in clear, warm, tropical waters is pretty sweet, too. I also enjoy getting to talk to the public, especially young people, and pass on my passion and knowledge.

5. When did you decide that you wanted to be a marine biologist / how long have you been interested in sharks?

A: I’ve been interested in sharks as long as my family can remember. Most kids go through a shark thing or a dinosaur thing. I did both, and actually had a huge collection of dinosaur toys and models, but the shark thing stuck.

6. Have you ever been bitten by a shark?

A: Nope.

7.  Are you afraid when you’re near sharks?

A: Afraid? No. But they’re large wild predators, and it’s important to respect them and their abilities. The second you don’t, they’ll remind you why you should. Ducks and geese, on the other hand, I have a perfectly rational fear of. Those things are terrifying.

8. How many sharks have you seen?

A: Probably around 3,000, between my research, my recreational snorkeling and SCUBA diving, and trips to aquariums. I stopped counting when I passed 50 unique species but we’re probably at more than 75 now.

9. What’s your favorite species of shark?

A: The sandbar shark, Carcharhinus plumbeus, sometimes also called the brown shark. I studied baby sandbars for my Masters research, and now I see the adults during my Ph.D. research. It feels like I’m following their life cycle as I progress through my own professional life cycle.

10. Does (insert specific species of shark here) live in (insert specific geographic region here?)

A. I probably don’t know the answer to that offhand unless it’s a region where I’ve personally worked or studied, but you can look up range maps for any species of shark on the IUCN Red List website or on fishbase.

11. Do you have any advice for someone who wants to do what you do someday?

A: So much advice that I wrote a whole separate post about itwith different sections depending on where in your career or education you currently are.

12. Is (insert school here) a good school to study marine biology?

A. I am not an ideal person to be giving others advice of this nature, for a variety of reasons. I suggest talking with your guidance counselor or picking up a reference book. For graduate school, you’re typically applying to join a lab rather than to join a school, and your individual mentor’s reputation can matter more than that of the school itself. When making a decision like this, you need to know more than just the overall reputation of the school; you need to know whether or not there are staff and facilities there who do the exact kind of research that you’d like to be doing. If you’re able to make it work, attending a scientific conference is a great way to meet many potential advisers at once.

13: Where did you go to school?

A. I went to Duke University for my undergraduate degree in biology, College of Charleston for my Masters in marine biology, and University of Miami for my Ph.D. in ecosystem science and policy. I would happily recommend any of these, but there are many other great opportunities out there as well.

14.  Are sharks endangered?

A. Sharks are not a single species, but 24% of all known species of sharks, skates and rays are listed as Threatened with extinction by the IUCN Red List. Currently there is just one shark species listed under the U.S. Endangered Species Act, but there are also sawfish (a close relative of sharks). IUCN Red List Endangered and U.S. ESA Endangered do not mean the same thing and the terms should not be used interchangeably.

15. What can I do to help sharks/ help the ocean?

A: Volunteering your time or funds to a local science lab or conservation organization would be great. Barring that, write your elected officials, eat sustainable seafood (here’s a good general guide), and learn more about the problem from a reputable source and spread the word. Signing an internet petition is not necessarily going to help anything or anyone, many are so poorly written that they are functionally useless. 

16. How many species of sharks are there?

A. As of August 2015, there are 512 recognized species of sharks, but new species are discovered regularly! In fact, scientists discover a new species of shark, skate or ray (on average) about every two weeks!

17. Do your research methods / telemetry tags hurt the sharks?

A. No. All of our research methods are carefully designed to minimize stress to the animals, something our lab is a world leader in doing. For some reason, telemetry tags seem to invite a lot of hostility from uninformed animal rights extremists, but the tags cause much less damage to the sharks than many activities in their everyday lives and are a critical source of data to protect threatened species.

18  Can I come out on the boat and tag sharks with you?

A: Yes! Our lab takes individual citizen scientists, as well as entire high school science classes, community organizations, or even corporate groups. We’d love to have you join us for a day of shark research.

19. If I wanted to quote you for a class project or media article, how should I attribute you? 

A. If you’re a student and want to quote something on this page for a class project, you can refer to me as a “marine biologist studying sharks” or a “marine biologist” or a “shark researcher” or a “shark biologist.” If you are a journalist who wants to quote me, my preferred title and affiliation is “a Ph.D. candidate studying shark ecology and conservation at the University of Miami,” but the alternative titles above also work.

20. Hey, I have a follow-up question or a question that isn’t included on this list of FAQs!

A: Awesome, I’m happy to help answer a few quick questions if I have time. E-mail me at WhySharksMatter at gmail.