One of my favorite shark-trips thus far was to Mosselbaai, South Africa with Oceans Research. I even joked with my parents, saying if I didn’t come home after my internship time was up, it wasn’t because of some boy, but because of the country.
Seems the same could be said for this month’s “Behind the Fins” sharky gal, Michelle Wcisel, who recently finished her M.Sc. at the University of Cape Town, South Africa. (Three cheers for her!) But, she wasn’t always residing in South Africa- in fact, she’s originally from Michigan! Her path with science started with a B.Sc. (with honors) in Zoology at the Michigan State University in the United States. Currently, she holds the title of EDNA Science’s Scientific Communicator and Researcher.
She took some time away from her busy schedule to give The Fins United Initiative the 4-1-1 scoop on her, her life and some pretty jawsome dreams (probably with some tea by her side).
I mean, you gotta be pretty fin-tastic to get a picture like the one to the left. Too cool!
The Fins United Initiative: What are you studying right now?
MW: I am in between studies at the moment. I just finished my M.Sc. at the University of Cape Town with theDyer Island Conservation Trust studying the anti-predator behaviour of Cape fur seals in Shark Alley. Currently, I am wearing my other hat as a freelance scientific communication/PR/fundraising/marketing manager. I will be headed back to South Africa to help coordinate the grand opening of the African Penguin & Seabird Sanctuary in Gansbaai – a dream project that is finally coming true!
TFUI: Anything planned for the future?
MW: As for the future, there are loads of exciting projects out there, but I am taking the time to re-evaluate my path before committing to anything new.
TFUI: Who has inspired your scientific career as a marine biologist?
MW: My parents. They believed (or did a good job pretending to believe) that my sister and I could be anything we wanted to be. They worked hard to get us to college, but after that, it was up to us. Not only have they inspired my career, they instilled self-confidence in me (which is crucial for female researchers) and continually help me keep it real. There was a time when I was complaining bitterly to my mom about a very specific academic issue we’ve all had (Reviewer #3), and my mom responded, “Girl, don’t they know you went to school in Flint, MI?” It was a simple reminder of where I’ve come from (shout out to my MCC Bears) and what I’ve achieved, and not to sweat the small stuff.
TFUI: A piece of advice I know myself, and many others, still struggle with: those little details that make everything “perfect”! Let’s talk more about advice: what words of wisdom do you have for students in high school? Undergrad? Master’s? PhD?
MW: The most important thing you can do for you and your career is take the time to learn about you. The best way to do this is TRAVEL! Get outside of your home country, live somewhere new, and learn who you are. Once you figure out what you love to do and what kind of life you want to have, it will be much easier to decide what kind of career matches that life. Also, don’t be afraid to stop, re-evaluate, and change as you grow older.
TFUI: If you had told me I would be where I am now when I was 18, I would have laughed. My “life plan” hascompletely changed- but for the better!
MW: The life you envision for yourself at 21 will not be the same as the life you envision at 29, trust me!
TFUI: Agreed! Since you’ve gotten to wear so many “hats” while working with sharks, what’s a myth about being a shark researcher that you want to clear the record about?
MW: Many people believe the only way you can work with sharks is to be a “shark researcher”, and many people have incredible misconceptions of what being an actual researcher is like. To be any kind of researcher - whether shark, whale, penguin, or zooplankton - you first must love science. This includes tons of reading, math, learning from others, and learning how to ask answerable questions to collect/analyse relevant data. You must also have the passion to write and the creativity to communicate research to both scientists and the public. You must be able to learn from constructive criticism and not get deflated by rejection. Then, if you also have a passion for sharks, you should absolutely pursue a career as a shark researcher.
If you don’t have a deep burning passion for science but love sharks, then you should pursue any of the numerous alternative careers. Videography, photography, marketing, tourism, boat operations, business management, tour guiding, marine engineering, teaching, diving, policy, graphic artistry, and the list goes on and on and on…!
TFUI: That is such a great “myth debunker.” Many people forget that there are many occupations that still get to work with sharks. I’m so glad that you brought this wonderful point up, and that people don’t get discouraged about studying sharks just because they don’t want to pursue science. Speaking- earlier- of dreams: what’s your dream research/conservation project?
MW: A 30-year fully funded project focused on top-predator trophic cascades somewhere warm near the ocean (but not too close). We’d be based in a fully functioning lab that is off the grid and sponsored by Land Rover. This project would have top-class salaries for an epic supervisor, a few researchers, an editor, a marketing/fundraising/PR team, a marine engineer, a lawyer, a web developer, photographers/videographers, technicians, skippers, and most importantly many many many interns who would be paid salaries and have all travel/accommodation/insurance expenses paid. This team would tackle any conservation issue from both the scientific and policy-driven sides and would be at the forefront of scientific communication. We would also run a for-profit sustainable microbrewery. Dream big! :)
TFUI: I absolutely love your "dream project." Who knows-- keep dreaming at it may be a reality! If anyone can get it done, you can!
And of course, since there is always more to a person than just what they study, we were curious to see some of Michelle’s “faves.”
TFUI: Okay, switching gears up, let’s talk about something non-shark related. What’s one thing we can’t find you without?
MW: A pot of Earl Grey tea.
TFUI: Glad to see we're both fans of tea never leaving our sides.
the fins united initiative would like to thank Michelle 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:
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