In a room full of shark experts, aspiring marine biologists, and ocean aficionados, University of Massachusetts Boston junior Michelle Katz, 28, couldn’t help but notice the little girl sitting next to her. The child seemed utterly fascinated by the lecture. She listened intently and wrote furiously.
“She took more notes than I did,” Katz said.
They gathered this week at the New England Aquarium to learn about sharks and, perhaps more important, about the female scientists who study the predators.
The two-day symposium was called “Shark Tales: Women Making Waves.” An initiative of the Gills Club, which was launched by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in Chatham, the aquarium events highlight STEM education for young women and girls. Attendees participate in lunch-panel discussions with female scientists from around the world who share their expertise. Some get to take part in shark dissections.
“As a first-generation college student, I didn’t have anyone giving me advice on my educational journey,” said Brooke Flammang-Lockyer, assistant professor in biology at the New Jersey Institute of Technology and one of the event’s speakers.
“It’s really exciting to have this group of girls interested in sharks. There are a lot of women who do this. It’s not weird or strange that they want to study this. There are more areas of research than they ever dreamed imaginable,” she continued.
Flammang-Lockyer said she still remembers the day she announced to her mother that she wanted to be a marine biologist when she grew up. She was 10. Her work now focuses on locomotion and swimming. Her curiosity led her to discover a muscle in the tail of most sharks that makes them more efficient swimmers than many undersea creatures.
There’s something about sharks, said Kara Yopak, an assistant professor in the department of biology and marine biology at the University of North Carolina Wilmington who grew up in Western Massachusetts.
“There are so many cool deep sea sharks that most people haven’t even heard of,” Yopak said. “I hope [the participants] get a sense of all of our collective enthusiasm for what we do.”
The focus of Yopak’s research is in the brain. She’s studied more than 180 species of shark brains to see how they’re different and how brains are similar among species that live in similar environments. Yopak has been a mentor with the Gills Club before. Friendships form as the girls learn.
At a young age, she, too, informed her mother that she wanted to study sharks.
“I read every book about sharks I could get my hands on,” Yopak said. “I wished this group existed for me. Getting to interact with the girls is like interacting with myself at that age. What we do [as scientists], it doesn’t exist unless the next generation picks it up and is able to push it further.”
What Katz found most helpful was hearing the scientists say it was possible to pursue her research dreams. She’s interested in studying bluefin tuna.
“It took me a long time to convince myself that I could become a scientist,” Katz said. “And I still struggle with that. That’s a daily struggle — even women that are scientists struggle with that.”
What left her most inspired was the little girl who took notes throughout the event.
“That’s what it’s all about,” Katz said.
Cristela Guerra can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow her on Twitter @CristelaGuerra.