This next Behind the Fins series interview is special because Dr. Mikki McComb-Kobza is someone TFUI Founder Melissa looks up to. She's Executive Director of Ocean First Institute, which provides virtual field trip experiences all over the world-- they have reached over 100,000 students in 4,000 classrooms within 25 countries and 37 US states!
The Fins United Initiative: Were you always interested in pursuing a career in marine science?
Mikki McComb-Kobza: I first got interested in the ocean based on my fear of sharks after seeing the movie JAWS as a youngster. To overcome my fear I read all about sharks and have been captivated ever since! Sharks are truly fascinating creatures and I use them as a hook to get people interested in the ocean and all that is happening in it today.
TFUI: You are the Executive Director of Ocean First Institute. What sparked the idea for this amazing resource and how do you hope it grows?
MMCK: I have always been intrigued by research and trying to understand how things are connected and how they work. I am equally passionate about sharing my love of science and nature with the public and especially young people. I hope to inspire them to care about the natural world and to become explorers and protectors of it. At the Institute, I get to combine my two passions, research and education and I can't think of a more wonderful thing.
TFUI: You recently received the Blue Friend of the Year Award! Congratulations! For TFUI readers who don't know what that it is, can you explain the honour and why it means so much to you and for Ocean First Institute?
MMCK: Yes, I was awarded the Blue Friend of the Year award from The Loggerhead Marine Life Center in Juno Beach Florida. They are a premiere sea turtle hospital, rehabilitation, research and education center. When I lived in Florida I had the pleasure of serving on their Board of Directors and learned first hand how much of a positive impact they had on sea turtles and the reach they had into the local community. I was chosen to receive the Blue Friend Award for my work with youth. The award makes me so happy because inspiring people to care about the natural world, the ocean in particular, is my calling.
TFUI: During your Ph.D. training, you not only studied shark biology but also the risks they face from people. What compelled you to focus on sharks? You also completed your Ph.D. on shark sensory biology. What did you learn?
MMCK: I have been captivated by sharks since I was 7 years old. I learned early on that the public is so misinformed about sharks and what they are really like. We are trained to fear them and it takes time to replace fear with facts and then to understand that we need sharks to have healthy ecosystems. Its a big flip in thinking and I love paving the way for people. Sharing the water with sharks is a special thing and being able to do that with people that have never seen a shark in the wild is truly exhilarating.
TFUI: Ocean First Institute provides virtual field trip experiences all over the world. You have a myriad of topics, like "Careers in Marine Science," "Sharks and Their Amazing Adaptations," "Why do Hammerhead Sharks Have The Weird Head?," and so on and so forth! You've reached over 100,000 students in 4,000 classrooms within 25 countries and 37 US states! Talk about stellar outreach. I guess my question is "WHY?" Why do you do what you do?
MMCK: When I finish a virtual session I literally dance. I love it so much. I love having kids ask me about sharks, to see their faces when I show them weird species or tell them what it is like to swim next to sharks. They are amazed and sometimes they are transported to a different place with me. If only for 30 minutes. The impact may last a lot longer. I sure think it can.
TFUI: You take students on research expeditions to provide hands-on experience and training! You've mentored over 200 middle and high school students in sea turtle tagging, shark laser measuring, reef fish identification and underwater photography. In your opinion, why are these experiences so important for changing the perception of these animals?
MMCK: When a young person gets to see an animal up close in the wild- its a big deal. To dive into the water, knowing sharks are below you takes courage the first time. But when students come back up from diving with sharks, they tell me things like " I wasn't afraid" and "They are so graceful and beautiful". Seeing how research can help species that are endangered is also really important. I hope that some of the students take that home with them forever. They will always know people are fighting for the rights of these animals and they can always be part of it to. The data we collect helps us protect populations and students participate in that and add to databases.
TFUI: Tell us a little bit about the "Girls in Ocean Science” camp.
MMCK: We run a summer camp just for young girls. It means a lot to me to be able to show young girls that science isnt geeky or uncool. Its awesome and fun and a researcher is always trying to solve mysteries and learn more.
TFUI: What has been the greatest takeaway from this camp for you?
MMCK: I think young girls need to know its ok to be good at science and that there are so many ways to find that passion. I want to be a role model and help them overcome obstacles and stereotypes. I want them to know they can do anything if they put their minds to it.
TFUI: What is the most rewarding thing about your job?
MMCK: I love spending my time trying to protect marine life and to be able to share my passion with as many people as I can. I hope I can inspire people to take action on behalf of wildlife. We are currently living in the worlds 6th mass extinction event, caused by us humans. We need people to care and to take action. Humans must learn how to live more harmoniously with wildlife.
TFUIL Do you think people in your state have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
MMCK: Yes, I think people in Colorado are environmentally aware and very happy being outside in nature. We value it. I think everyone can learn more about wildlife and how we can all be part of the solution in conservation efforts. Education is key.
TFUI: What’s next for you and Ocean First Institute?
MMCK: I hope to keep growing our programs and to keep bringing on more and more people to the team. We need it!
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK mikki FOR Her TIME AND
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