We are excited to sit down with Gail Schwieterman and talk about her journey in the marine sciences. Dive on in to the latest "Behind the Fins" interview.
The Fins United Initiative: So we have to ask, why did you decide to study the ocean and its marine creatures?
Gail Schwieterman: I grew up in Ohio, a typical mid-west suburban life with a few extra cows and cornfields thrown in. I had always been interested in nature, actively participating in junior naturalist programs and volunteering at the Columbus Zoo every summer. I wasn’t enthralled by any particular career path, but I figured biology was as good a way as any to ensure my eventual career involved nature in some capacity. As I meandered through college, dabbling in various clubs and extracurriculars that focused on politics and equality, I decided to pursue vet school, and began working at a local veterinarian’s office to gain experience.
GS: My mother, wonderful woman that she is, pushed me to apply to a study abroad program focused on Marine Science. Despite my preference for other programs that Spanish emphasized language skills, the GAIAS Marine Science Program offered me the best scholarship, so I went to Ecuador for three months.
TFUI: That must've been amazing!
GS: I am extremely fortunate in that I can say I lived on the Galapagos Islands. Although the underwater environments have been victim to invasive species, over fishing, and climate change, they’re still spectacular. I had the opportunity to dive with sharks nearly every week, and snorkel with sea turtles every day. Learning about the challenges facing the marine realm, I quickly became enthralled by the complexities surrounding marine resource management. Here was a field that combined biology and social justice. Economics, and physiology. Mathematical modeling, and ethics. From that semester abroad, I was hooked!.
TFUI: What is your day-to-day schedule like?
GS: My day-to-day schedule changes a lot depending on the season, which is one of the reasons I love my job- variety! Some days I spend all day sitting in front of my computer, trying to analyze data. Some days I am curled up on my couch pouring over papers and taking notes. During the summer, I am usually spending all day (and I mean ALL day, 14-16 hrs) in lab doing experiments.
TFUI: Wow! Long days!
GS: Regardless of the season, my week is usually peppered with different meetings. I serve on Diversity and Inclusion Committee at my institution, as well as on the Academic Council (the group in charge of making credit requirements, the course catalogue, etc). These positions help me give back to my community, and gain a different perspective on academic life. These meetings can be time consuming, but I also look forward to the break from whatever else I’m doing to think about things bigger than me and my current project.
TFUI: Can you tell us a little bit about the work you are currently doing?
GS: I am currently working on understanding what happens to shark blood when the animals is captured. We know that exercise and air exposure (which happen during a capture event), can cause the blood pH to drop. What we don’t understand is how sharks are able to still deliver oxygen to their bodies when the blood pH changes. In teleosts (fishes with calcified bones like you and me), the red blood cells swell up, protecting the pH level within the cells. Sharks probably do something different, but we don’t know what just yet
TFUI: Why is your research important?
GS: My research is important because it looks at what is going on with individual animals. A lot of really important studies that are used in management decisions only consider what’s going on at the population level- is the population growing or shrinking? When does everyone they migrate?
GS: I’m working on understanding what’s going on between the individual and their environment- how does the metabolism of one fish change under warmer water temperatures? Can their heart still function when they experience the stress of capture? Basically I’m trying to get a more detailed, mechanistic understanding of what happens at the individual level, with the idea that this information can be used to ask better questions about what happens at the population level.
TFUI: What are some difficulties you have had in conducting research in your country (if any)?
GS: I’m sure it’s one of the challenges scientists face in pretty much every country, but finding funding to do my research has been the hardest thing I’ve encountered so far. Luckily, I’ve been fortunate in that I’ve been able to get several fellowships to cover my tuition, and my lab has a lot of expensive equipment that I have access to.
TFUI: Do you think the current government administration is doing enough is regards to funding environmental science (specifically ocean/marine)?
GS: Definitely not. Especially with Trump’s new ocean policy, which turns the focus away from conservation and sustainable use of all of our marine resources, towards rapid exploitation for short-term economic gain, I am only expecting more cuts to science funding.
TFUI: Why do you think people should invest money into this science?
GS: People should invest money into science, particularly ocean/marine science because it is only through good science that we will have the information we need to sustainably manage our marine resources- especially fisheries. However, good science isn’t enough. We’ll need cooperative stakeholders that are willing to work together to find creative solutions, and are willing to make sacrifices and compromises where necessary.
TFUI: Do you think people in your country have a good relationship with the ocean environment?
GS: In general, I think people who live on the coasts appreciate the ocean. However, for many people, the ocean is somewhere you vacation for a week if you’re lucky.
TFUI: Very true.
GS: One of the things I love about marine science is that it is inherently so interdisciplinary- blending physics, economics, biology, anthropology, conservation, etc etc. This means that there is something that is bound to be interesting to everyone. As scientists and ocean-enthusiasts, it’s our job to communicate all of these different angles to capture the attention of as many people as possible.
TFUI: What has been your most exciting discovery/trip?
GS: I have some really cool results that I can’t wait to share, but I’m sitting on that until it’s published (check back in a year!).
TFUI: Ooh, can’t wait!
GS: My most exciting trip would be the year I spent abroad after college. I received a fellowship to spend a year traveling investigating how different cultures and industries think about and interact with sharks. I worked with artisanal fishermen in Costa Rica, with educators and activists in Hong Kong, and with tourism companies in South Africa. I met so many wonderful people who have dedicated their lives to the ocean, and was able to confirm with myself that I wanted to as well!
TFUI: Sounds like a magical experience!
TFUI: You've recently posted pictures of a shark dissection-- what do you hope people take away from such tweets?
GS: I hope that the strange pictures capture people’s attention, and that they pause enough to learn a quick fact or two. A picture is worth a thousand words, and especially in today’s digital environment, it can be hard to get people to read a full article.
TFUI: It feels like our attention spans have never been shorter, that’s for sure!
GS: I think twitter and Instagram are really great for just providing those visually tasty tidbits, and they might even wet someone’s appetite for a larger bite (bite blog anyone?).
TFUI: What advice do you have for those who are just starting out their marine science careers or are wanting to go into this industry?
GS: I’m only halfway through my PhD, so I’m still pretty early in my career as well!
TFUI: True! But you have valuable insight for someone just starting with… say, a Bachelors or Master’s degree.
GS: I think the biggest piece of advice that I can give is to take time to figure out what you need to accomplish your goals. I think there’s all of this pressure (a lot of is self-imposed) to go to grad school right away and to accumulate all of these accolades as quickly as possible. While I definitely catch myself in that mindset, I just don’t really see that as being productive. There are so many jobs that don’t require a PhD, and others that don’t require a Master’s. Take a year or two or ten to figure out if you want to work on a boat full time (don’t need grad school), or if you want to work in a lab all day (don’t need a PhD), or if you actually want to be a professor (then you gotta buckle up for the long haul of a PhD program). I took two and a half years off between undergrad and grad school, and it was the best thing I did for my career, hands down.
THE FINS UNITED INITIATIVE WOULD LIKE TO THANK gail FOR Her TIME AND WE WISH Her WELL ON Her CURRENT/FUTURE PROJECTS!
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TFUI Founder Melissa C. Marquez is author of all animal bios and "Behind the Fins" segments.
SEE MELISSA'S TEDx TALK HERE:
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