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High School Senior Projects at CEI

June 8, 2012

This spring, two high school seniors, Louise Shiverick (F’10) and Sam Falkson, came down to Eleuthera to work at the Cape Eleuthera Institute for their senior project. Read about their time at CEI working with the lemon shark program.

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Louise

My name is Louise Shiverick and I am lucky enough to be working at the Cape Eleuthera Institute with the Shark Research and Conservation Program for my Senior Project. At my school, Hathaway Brown (in Shaker Heights, Ohio), the last thing that the seniors do before graduating is a two week senior project. The point is to give us one last opportunity in high school to get involved with something that we find really interesting. People do a variety of things, from community service at soup kitchens to shadowing a doctor at one of the nearby hospitals. While most people stay at home, I decided to do something different and come to CEI.

I was an Island School student in Fall 2010 and was on the Lemon Shark research group back then as well. I loved each part of my semester, but research class was on average my favorite part of each week and I loved learning about sharks and spending time in the field. I want to be a marine biologist, and this was the first hands-on experience that I got. I can remember the first time that I got to hold one of the juvenile lemon sharks that we caught and how cool it was to really be able to be a part of the research instead of just sitting back and watching. I knew that I wanted to come back to the Island School someday, and doing my senior project here seemed to be the perfect way to do this.

It definitely was. These past fifteen days have flown by in a blur of fascination and excitement coupled with hard work and new friends. As there is no “typical day”, everything always feels like a new learning opportunity, and each day I become more and more used to the way of life. It’s a lot different on the CEI campus than on the Island School side of things, and it was crazy at first to adjust to that. I have spent most of my time working with Ian Hamilton and the rest of the shark team as they collect data to address the question of how predation affects growth rate. The hypothesis is that as predation risk increases, growth rate of the juvenile lemon sharks will also increase because the sharks are under more pressure to become bigger faster so that they are not eaten by the mature adult sharks. We use a variety of different methods, including using seine nets at the mouths of the creeks to catch juveniles and prey, BRUVS data (Baited Remote Underwater Video Surveys), and drumlining, a fishing method used to catch the big predators outside of the creeks. There are other parts of the project as well, but these are the parts that I have mostly been helping with.

A day in the field is usually a lot of work, but also a lot of fun. The shark team is a great group of people that are not only a ton of fun to hang out with, but also provide a wealth of knowledge and experience that seems greater than any textbook could ever offer me. It’s easy to get lost in their enthusiasm and passion about this stuff because as we’re discussing complex scientific concepts it seems more like a conversation, and they have a way of melting away all of the nitty gritty scientific language and hard to understand mumbo jumbo to reveal something that’s very real and interesting.

It’s also awesome to be a part of this project because one of the ultimate goals is conservation of shark populations as well as land. Lemon sharks, being a keynote species, are very vulnerable to fishing pressure and human impacts. They take around 12 years to reach sexual maturity, and only produce small litters of pups every two years once they start reproducing. In addition, lemon sharks exhibit natal site fidelity, which means that they return to the same creek where they were born to have their own pups. This puts them at large risk because in coastal places where they live, anthropogenic development is common and often alters or destroys their habitats, leaving them with no place to go. Juvenile lemon sharks use mangrove creeks as nurseries, and they are imperative to their survival in early years before they can move out to more open water where bigger sharks also live. This study is valuable because it can help prevent development in places that are vital to lemon sharks. Each creek is different, and because of different abiotic and biotic factors, some are more valuable than others. By collecting data about different abundances in several creeks, we can use this to sway developers from using one area to using a different area, because even though you can’t stop development, you can use logic and science to help protect certain areas.

During my previous semester here, I learned a lot about these concepts. However, we didn’t have research class as often as I would have liked, and I only got a glimpse of what the shark team did. Now that all of my time is dedicated to CEI, I have been able to see more into the life of a researcher. Some days are slower and we don’t catch as many sharks as we’d like, and some days we don’t get to go out into the field at all because of weather. Days like those are used for things like data entry and video analysis, or equipment repairs. In a place where most of the people are used to being outside these indoor tasks are considered pretty boring. However, “not every week is shark week”, as the team says, and there is a lot of behind-the- scenes work that goes into an exciting research project. They also gave me a few scientific papers to read, which are extremely dense and confusing but it feels really good when you get to the end and understand it.

When I’m not with the shark team, I’m usually either at meals or in the dorms or around CEI, often hanging out with the interns. It was hard for me at first to get used to not being an Island School student but also not being a CEI intern, and I felt for a little bit like I didn’t really know what my place here was. It also was challenging to be new around people who have been here for so long, and I was pretty shy at first. People forget that new people don’t know things about the way of living here that seem very simple and obvious to them, so it takes a little bit to feel comfortable. After a week or so though, this place felt like home again and I started to open up more to everyone and be myself. Experiences like this that put you out of comfort zone are really helpful, and this fall when I go to college I know that these couple weeks will help me adjust to college life without knowing anyone. I’m headed to Trinity College in Connecticut, and I can’t wait to begin that next phase of my life. I plan to major in Biology, and this experience will also help me know that I can conquer a difficult piece of scientific writing and understand it. When I left this place a year and a half ago, I never imagined that I would be back so soon doing all these things that I love, and it’s really been amazing to come back to CEI. The only thing that I wish I could change is the amount of time that I have had because it has gone by so fast. I feel like I just got here, and now it’s already time to leave.

Sam

I am a high school senior at Thayer Academy in Massachusetts. Thayer Academy gives seniors the month of May to explore careers that interest them. I love science and I love travelling, so I decided to combine these two passions by doing my senior project at CEI.

Since arriving, I have been working with the shark team. Our research focuses on baby lemon sharks and how their mortality and growth rates are connected. Our hypothesis is that if mortality rate increases, growth rate will increase because there is more pressure to grow to a size safe from predation.

Shark populations have been steadily declining, and it’s important to preserve this animal’s existence since they are top predators and have a great effect on their entire ecosystem. Without sharks, prey animal populations would grow uncontrollably and diminish resources. Our research will give insight into the life cycle of lemon sharks and will offer ways of how to best protect these organisms so that they can continue to dominate the sea.

While ate CEI, I have gotten a glimpse into what it’s like to be a researcher. There are fun days where we get out into the field, capturing sharks and taking down data; there are also days in the office where we analyze this data to see what it all means. I have seen the scientific process in action, and how researchers go about answering the questions that they strive to know. I have really enjoyed this experience, not only because catching sharks is awesome, but also because I am contributing to an important research project with real world applications.

Aside from what I’ve learned through research, I have learned much about sustainability. Many of the rules here have taken some getting used to, like the brief showers and the bathroom flushing protocol; however it has made me realize that everyday resources, such as water, are limited. We must conserve our resources so future generations can enjoy them as we have. Food is another resource that I have learned to appreciate while here. Whatever we don’t eat, we feed to the animals, and eventually, we eat the animals. This is a much more resourceful process than simply throwing away the food we don’t finish. At home, I will be more conscious of conserving resources. I will not put more food on my plate than I can finish, and I will take shorter showers.

I look forward to continue studying science next year. This experience has augmented my passion for the subject. I will be more motivated to understand new concepts in the classroom, so that one day I can do meaningful things in science like all the researchers here at CEI.

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