Becoming a Shark Scientist
For Alex McInturf, Marine Biologist & Shark Scientist, the ocean had always been a special place. Many likely expect that researchers and Marine Biologists who study sharks and the ocean to have grown up near the coast. But for Alex, it’s because she didn’t grow up near the ocean that she’s so fascinated by it.
When Alex was young, her family took trips to the beach in Florida. She remembers looking out into the water and feeling a bit intimidated by everything that was out there but she couldn’t see. She loved being in the water and was never afraid of going in, but there were moments she would look out at the vast expanse of ocean and be in awe. Those were the moments she thought, “Can I study the ocean for a career?” Turns out, yes! Happily her dad pointed her to Marine Biology.
The ocean really is an under explored frontier. Part of the reason it’s particularly hard to study is, we can’t breathe under water! There are so many limitations to our ability to observe what’s going on.
There are over 500 species of sharks worldwide. They come in all different shapes and sizes, have different reproductive strategies, occupy different places of the world, eat different things… There are so many things about sharks that are diverse!
Sharks can be a little difficult to study. Some of the sharks Alex studies can be endangered, or threatened.
Studying sharks, she has had really wonderful moments and worked in the most beautiful of conditions. The water is clear and the sharks are everywhere! You go underwater for hours at a time and you’re just with the sharks. Those are the best days, of course.
But, for every best day there is a week of bad days. The conditions aren’t good enough to go out in the field, and may even be making you terribly sea sick. Entire field seasons where your sharks don’t show up. People tend to associate Marine Biology as being out in your swimsuit on a boat in the sun and it’s great, but in reality a lot of it now is different. You get out for a few days in the year, put a transmitters on sharks so you can gather the shark’s data, and then you leave. Likely, you’re on your computer for the rest of the year.
So, what are the questions a Shark Scientist is trying to answer?
Currently, Alex is examining how temperature effects the likelihood of fish being eaten.
The balance of being in the lab for a shark study project, and then going to the field for first hand shark research, is really complimentary. Alex can be in the lab and manipulate the environment and see how the animals respond. In the lab external factors that may be effecting behavior in the wild can be manipulated and controlled. However, it’s hard if you only do lab work to then project and see how it might play out in a realistic natural setting. In the field is where a Shark Scientist gets to understand the other factors that have been controlled for in the lab might actually be really important.
In a typical year, 3-6 months will be spent in the lab working on an experiment and trying to understand how temperature is effecting the fish she’s studying. Then, 1-2 months are spent in the field studying how sharks are moving around and measuring infield temperature.
Working in the lab it can be a little difficult to feel connected to the ocean. Luckily, Alex is based in Davis, CA – about 2 hours from the nearest coastline. On free weekends she tries to get out to the ocean for scuba diving, free diving, snorkeling, or just getting to the beach.
Her passion is driven by the ocean, so it’s really important for her to prioritize and continue to be motivated as a scientist by getting that spark by going out to the ocean.
There are ups and downs to being a scientist, but at the end of the day it’s pretty incredible.
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