It’s no secret that Melissa was lucky enough to work with great white sharks in South Africa a few years ago (wow, how time flies). She left with so many memories -- including becoming good friends with a fellow American!
Cassandra Ruck and Melissa both worked with an array sharks (mainly great whites and pyjama sharks) while down there.“White sharks are absolutely incredible,” Cassandra says. “They’re really curious and inquisitive creatures but also extremely cautious. They don’t want to expend unnecessary energy and often make multiple passes around the boat and the bait to assess the situation. They are not monstrous killing machines! They are highly calculated top predators, and quite beautiful.” We couldn’t agree more.
We’re pleased to announce her as this month’s “Behind the Fins” scientist, as a research assistant at the Save Our Seas Shark Research Center (USA). Cassandra is currently a master’s student at Nova Southeastern University and works with the Guy Harvey Research Institute. She’s got a lot going on… and we can’t wait for you to know the 411.
The Fins United Initiative: What is your current research project?
Cassandra Ruck: Currently I am working on my master’s thesis that focuses on the population genetics of the oceanic whitetip shark, Carcharhinus longimanus. Oceanic whitetips are a globally distributed pelagic (open-ocean) shark species that have unfortunately suffered drastic declines due to heavy exploitation and bycatch rates (check out Melissa's blog on these amazing sharks!). However, scientific publications on this species have been limited and no population genetic studies have been published to date! [Update: Cassandra has since graduated and started working on her PhD, and there has since been a publication on oceanic whitetip population genetics. Camargo et al. 2016 came out with a mitochondrial control region study on the oceanic whitetip a few weeks ago, you can find it here.]
TFUI: Sounds interesting--can you share a little more?
CR: Of course! By extracting DNA from samples of these sharks taken from all around the globe, I will be able to provide a more holistic picture of what these sharks are really doing and take a look into the population (or stock if you’re a fisheries person) structure. This information is absolutely key for good, scientifically based management strategies! For example, if the sharks in the northern Atlantic are migrating and breeding with the sharks in the southern Atlantic, then these sharks should be considered as one population and need to be managed via an international cooperative strategy. That is, as one population, over exploitation of the sharks in the north will directly impact the genetic health of the sharks in the south (and vice versa). On the contrary, if the sharks in the northern Atlantic are genetically distinct from those in the southern Atlantic, then separate management strategies must be implemented.
TFUI: That’s a great information nugget to point out. Assessing the health of shark populations via genetics is very important.
CR: Absolutely! Also very important in assessing the health of shark populations with genetic studies is genetic diversity. If a population has a high genetic diversity, this means that the population has a greater chance of surviving a large selection event (for example: ocean acidification, ocean warming, loss of prey availability, change of prey species, etc). This is because some of the individuals in the population may have specific genes (actually, genetically speaking they have specific alleles, but for our purposes we will refer to them as genes) that will help them persevere and survive a drastic event and therefore those sharks can keep the population going. However, if a population has low genetic diversity, the chances that a portion of the population will survive a selection event are much, much lower! Lower genetic diversity also comes with the risk of inbreeding. Just like in humans and other animals, inbreeding can lead to negative effects in future generations!
TFUI: Genetics is definitely an interesting topic to study-- we envy what you’re doing and wish you the very best! We can’t wait for all the updates in your project further down the line.
CR: I hope that wasn’t too much information! I have invested quite a bit of myself into this project so I can talk about it for days! [laughs]
TFUI: [laughs] No, don’t apologize! We like that sort of enthusiasm -- it’s what makes science fun! Please never lose it. What’s your dream research or conservation project?
CR: Wow, that’s a toughy. In an ideal world, I would love to be able to split up my time evenly between outreach, field work, and laboratory time/analyses. I think outreach is by far the most important thing when it comes to conservation (which is one of the reasons I think your blog is so awesome! ☺). [TFUI: Awe, you are too sweet] It is absolutely imperative for scientists to be able to communicate the importance of their work to the public, especially to the kids who will become the next generation of scientists and conservationists!
TFUI: We clearly agree with you that outreach is an important aspect of conservation! In fact, all parts of the equation (the research, the analysis and publications, the outreach) play a vital role in conservation. We’re excited to see where you and others of the future take the marine science world next.
CR: Thanks! I would love to eventually run my own research group. But, before that I need my PhD!
TFUI: What do you think needs to be done for future shark conservation?
CR: I think the one thing that is most critical to saving our sharks is a shift in public opinion. The stigma of fear surrounding sharks needs to be replaced by admiration and respect. That shift is only going to come from education and outreach. Fortunately, I do feel that that shift is already in motion!
Sharks have been around on this Earth much longer than us. They are at the top of the complex oceanic food web. As a species, we need to recognize that the ocean isn’t our swimming pool, it is the wilderness. We need to respect that we are not at the top of the food web when we step foot in the water. And we need to realize that our survival as a species is greatly dependent on their survival and the health of our oceans.
To quote the famed marine conservationist Sylvia Earle, “With every drop of water you drink, every breath you take, you’re connected to the sea.” This is the message that needs to be spread. Our health and vitality is directly linked to that of the oceans; and our oceans cannot remain healthy without healthy sharks to keep it in balance.
TFUI: You were an intern at Oceans Research for four months -- what did that experience teach you about yourself, your career path and, ultimately, the sharks?
CR: Working at Oceans Research was an absolutely life changing experience. I will never forget the first time I saw a white shark during my first weekend in Mossel Bay, while cage diving with White Shark Africa. She was a 3.5 meter female. As soon as she came to the boat I was in my wet suit and ready to be part of the first group in the cage! She was incredible! She was so beautiful and completely mesmerizing.
TFUI: Oh, we can agree. They were a sight to see!
CR: Right? It was awesome to get to experience that with you! I fell in love with the sea and its inhabitants over and over again every single day I was in Mossel Bay. The passion that I cultivated during my time there will stay with me forever. However, I think the most important thing I learned from working at Oceans Research was that I cando it. Do what you may ask? I can fearlessly jump in a cage next to a 3.5 meter white shark. I can toss chum into the water (and even make a chum-bow…that is a rainbow of chum) for hours and not even get the least bit queasy. I can move quickly around a boat and effectively snap photos of dorsal fins. I can successfully play keep away with a tuna head on a rope from extremely curious white sharks. I can pull up and deploy an anchor repeatedly throughout the day. I can even catch a 1 meter pyjama catshark while free diving with only my hands (don’t try that one at home, kids).
TFUI: That’s a great message to get out to everyone, especially girls: You CAN do whatever it is you set your mind to.
CR: Exactly! As a vertically challenged female (I’m 5’2”), I have faced a lot of doubt along my journey. Fortunately, I am so blessed that I have two incredible parents that never tried to place limits on me and never doubted my ability to accomplish something I truly wanted to do. [TFUI: I remember meeting your parents -- sweetest, most supportive people] My time in South Africa taught me that I am 100% capable of doing anything I set my mind to, including excelling outside of my comfort zone. I think the worst thing someone can do to someone else (or to themselves) is to put them in a box. Guess what? If you want to do it, you can do it!
TFUI: Speaking about “doing it,” let’s talk about the worst experience in the field/lab you’ve had? What did you learn from it?
CR: Sometimes things don’t go according to plan. Machines stop working, glassware gets dropped, samples get mixed up, things fall in the ocean. Sometimes it’s your fault, sometimes it’s not. I don’t have a specific example to share, but I have definitely learned important steps when things go wrong. First and foremost, take a breath. Acknowledge if you made a mistake and accept fault. If something needs to be tended to immediately, take action. Then, if possible, walk away for a little bit. It’s much easier to tackle a problem or fix a mistake with a clear head. However, at the end of the day, you just do the best you can ☺
TFUI: That is a great mentality, Cassandra. Do you have any advice for those hoping to follow in your sharky footsteps?
CR: Stemming from what I learned in South Africa, my best advice is that you can do it! The path to becoming a scientist is far from glamorous. Most of my days are currently spent in the lab or behind a computer running analyses (sorry kids, math is important!). But then again, I swam alongside a 10 foot great hammerhead a couple months ago ;)
TFUI: No, no, don’t mind me. Not jealous at all. [laughs]
CR: [laughs] Hey, now! You get to do some pretty cool stuff too. There’s that old cliché: “If you love what you do, you’ll never work a day in your life.” Well, I don’t totally agree with that. I love what I do, but I have worked my butt off to get to where I am today, and I continue to work my butt off. If you want to be a true scientist you too will have to work hard. It doesn’t come for free and it’s not for the faint of heart.
TFUI: That is something we at The Fins United Initiative try to instill in our educational curriculum's. Not every day will be rainbows and sharks breaching out of the ocean to corny sitcom music.
CR: That is definitely an important message to share, especially with kids who want to pursue a career in science. It's not all chumbows. [laughs] But I will be honest with you, all the work I have put into my education and career has been so worth it. I have learned so much and the opportunities I have had to witness the true majesty of sharks and the ocean are invaluable. I have met incredible people and am excited for future encounters, experiences and opportunities that will come my way. Pursuing a career motivated by passion is far more rewarding (at least for me) than a career motivated purely by monetary gain. If you want to do this, you will work hard. But if you keep an open mind and a sense of adventure, the experiences you will come across will be 100% worth it.
So my advice? Work hard. If someone tells you that you can’t do it, turn around and show them that you can. Get your feet wet (literally). Accept challenges head on. Stick to your guns. Take opportunities when they present themselves. And hold on tight, you’re in for a wild ride ;).
TFUI: Thanks, Cassandra, for taking time to speak to us… and for the absolutely motivational advice. Certainly kicks our butts into gear as we start our own MSc! Good luck, my friend.
CR: Good luck to you as well! You are going to do amazing things in New Zealand and beyond. And for those interested in my work and the work of my lab, check out the links above! Cheers, everyone!
you may also like:
TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
SEARCH BY CATEGORIES