What is your current job and what does it entail?
I am a senior scientist at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, where I am the director of the Center for Shark Research (CSR). Mote is an independent, nonprofit marine research and education institution, and the CSR is the nation’s only Congressionally designated research center dedicated to the scientific study of sharks and their relatives, the skates and rays. Our Ph.D. scientists and staff of biologists, graduate students and undergraduate student interns conduct studies on sharks, skates and rays from molecular biology in the laboratory to behavioral and ecological studies at sea, from our back door in the coastal waters of the Gulf of Mexico to distant sites around the world. As CSR director, I am responsible for the overall direction and administration of the shark center, including its scientific and educational activities as well as its budgetary and personnel needs. On top of that, I maintain my own shark research program, conducting studies of shark behavior, ecology, population biology, fisheries and conservation. I am also Associate Vice President for Research at Mote, serving as an advocate and advisor for the work of our other scientists in marine biology and conservation. Learn more at www.mote.org.
What was the key factor in your career decision?
What do like most about your career?
My love for the sea and for the adaptations of marine organisms to life in the sea, along with a natural interest in science and math, all led me to this career path. I knew I wanted to be a marine biologist before I went to college, but it wasn't until my later college years that I developed a special interest in the biology of sharks, which I pursued in graduate school and beyond.
That I and my staff are always learning, always growing and always helping to contribute to the body of scientific knowledge, whether it be by presenting a scientific paper, publishing a scientific article, conducting a television interview or talking with members of Congress. All of these help to move our field forward and improve the enlightenment of our species, which can only serve to contribute back to the marine environment and the organisms living in it. On a more personal level, I cherish my times on and in the water, and get paid to do some things that others work all year long to do for a couple of weeks of vacation!
What do you like least about your career?
It can take so long to get at the needed answers. Logistics, technology and funding can either work for you or against you, but you keep on going despite the hurdles. I am working on one of the most difficult research animals on the planet -- but that's also what makes it so interesting and rewarding when we discover something new.
What do you do to relax?
I spend time with my wife at our home in southwest Florida, where the weather is great and the pace isn’t too fast. My wife and I love to travel, often visiting exotic places while I'm on a trip to a scientific research site or meeting. And, sometimes it's just fun and relaxing to go to the movies or watch a sports event, too.
Who are your heroes/heroines?
What advice would you give a high school student who expressed an interest in pursuing a career in your field?
I respect and admire many people in my field, among them the leaders in the history of Mote Marine Laboratory who have made the institution what it is today. These include Dr. Eugenie Clark, the founding director of Mote who began the lab almost 60 years ago, and who is still going in her 90s with an active research program. And Dr. Perry Gilbert, who established Mote’s international reputation for contemporary scientific research. I am following in these scientists' footsteps, and they are very big footsteps indeed. Beyond that, I have many heroes and heroines in my own family, including my wife for her natural ability to care for others, and our three sons -- the oldest for his dedication to his family and success in business, the middle for his personal sacrifice in our military, and the youngest for his intelligence and wonderful way with people.
The one thing I tell all high school students interested in a career in marine biology is to go to the best college or university they can get into and take the best curriculum in basic science, math and liberal arts. Don't take a shortcut to marine biology and skip the basics, because to be a good marine biologist, you have to be a good biologist first. If you have what it takes to become a career research scientist in marine biology, you will go on to study those things in graduate school. At least a master's degree, and preferably a Ph.D., is a must for directing and conducting your own independent research program.
Are career opportunities in your field increasing or decreasing and why?
The number of opportunities in the field rise and fall with different events, some related to science, some not. For example, the Deepwater Horizon oil spill in 2010 refocused a lot of attention on the health of the Gulf of Mexico. The world and national economy play a major role in determining the resources available for science. Advances in technology are forging new opportunities in research every day. When I was in college, concerns about job opportunities never slowed down my thirst for knowledge in marine science. I kept being told, “Don’t worry, the cream rises to the top,” and here I am today. This is no less true in today’s world.
What will you be doing 10 years from today?
I hope to continue playing a leadership role wherever I can contribute to the advancing of our field and help the young, bright members of our science get the opportunities and find the resources they need to succeed. I also wish to continue using my accumulated knowledge to advise governments and people on science-based approaches to world problems.