Written by: Marissa Mangelli, Volunteer Programs Assistant
Every month, the third Saturday is a special day at Birch Aquarium: SEA Days! As the tagline suggests, SEA Days are always full of “Science, Exploration and Adventure.” Visitors and members can meet a Scripps Institution of Oceanography, UC San Diego or local researcher and get hands-on with science, participate in activity stations, and get creative with a thematic craft.
Have you ever wondered why sharks are shaped like a bullet, or why their dorsal fins are pointier than a dolphin’s? Questions like these can be answered by studying the physiology of different organisms. Physiology relates the form of different body parts to their function. Scientist Laura Jordan-Smith focuses her research on how different habitats can affect animal physiology. If we understand how sharks and rays function then we can help create bylaws or fishing nets that allow them to be released if accidentally caught as by-catch. Below Laura answers some questions and gives us advice on how to become a scientists.
Where did you go to school?
Undergraduate- Cornell University, PhD- UCLA
What is your area of research?
Generally, I study vertebrate functional ecomorphology (how various structures, from sensory systems to body shapes, provide functional adaptations to different environments and lifestyles in vertebrates, animals with backbones), much of my research has focused on elasmobranch (shark, skate, and ray) sensory biology and fisheries bycatch reduction. You can see a little more about my research in this recent article (http://www.southernfriedscience.com/?p=18605)
Who or what inspired you to become involved in marine science?
I loved family trips to the ocean (I grew up in upstate NY) and my high school biology class finalized my fascination with learning more about marine life.
What qualities do you need in order to become a scientist?
Endless curiosity and dedication to learning, careful record keeping while repeating experiments, creativity in finding new solutions to problems and looking at questions from different perspectives, motivation to find opportunities and make connections in fields you want to study.
Why is your research topic important?
Elasmobranchs are currently recognized as one of the most threatened groups of vertebrates and most of that threat is related to fishing activities. Many species are caught unintentionally by fisheries as bycatch. Through learning more about how these animals sense and respond to fishing gear we can potentially reduce their chances of being caught and help populations recover.
What will you be bringing with you to SEA days?
Some videos of sharks and rays responding to sensory signals including water flow and electric fields, some examples of potential bycatch reduction devices, and some interactive activities about the various sensory systems of sharks and rays and studying populations using genetic techniques (Dovi Kacev’s research).
What is the best advice you have for people interested in becoming involved in your field of research?
Understanding biology means learning physics and chemistry and doing research involves math, specifically statistics, along with writing and communicating clearly- so learn as much as you can about all of these areas! I also recommend learning how to SCUBA dive so you can really experience the ocean environment with the organisms you want to study. Look for programs where you can interact with people doing marine science- from marine labs like Shoals Marine Lab (the first one I studied at, http://www.sml.cornell.edu/sml_students.html), to online resources like The Gills Club (https://www.facebook.com/groups/155497421325778/), to local educational programs like World Below the Waves (www.worldbelowthewaves.com).
What is your favorite ocean organism?
So many to choose from, but my current favorite is the whale shark. I just had the opportunity to swim with them earlier this year and it was incredible to be so close to something so much larger than I am! It was amazing watching them filter feed their tiny plankton prey and seeing remoras dance along the surface of their bodies or hold on tight for a free ride.
SEA Days are 11 a.m – 3 p.m., are included with aquarium admission, and always free to aquarium members. Not a member? Join today!
SEA you there!