Shaara Ainsley

Shaara Ainsley

Hometown: Seattle, WA & South Pasadena, CA

Undergraduate Education: BA in Creative Studies (2004)

UC Santa Barbara, College of Creative Studies

Yes you can learn to be a creative biologist!

Check out the CCS website: www.ccs.ucsb.edu/biology

Work experience before MLML?

I worked as an intern and volunteer in many fun and interesting places before arriving at MLML. It all started back in high school, when I volunteered for a few years at the Aquarium of the Pacific in Long Beach. After my junior year in high school I spent the summer at UC Santa Barbara in their Research Mentorship Program, where I got a first hand look at ‘marine biology’ while assisting in a study of barnacles.

During undergad I spent a summer interning at the Center for Shark Research at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, FL. There I gained both laboratory and field experience in a few short months of intensive work. The connections I made there not only helped get me into graduate school, but have also opened up valuable resources. In addition to my time at Mote, I also spent three weeks in Belize at Glover’s Reef helping a graduate student from North Carolina State University. We examined the role a certain hormone plays in the sex changing process of bluehead wrasse (Thalassoma bifasciatum). I spent much of my time in snorkel gear on patch reefs observing tagged fish and their spawning and feeding habits.

After college, I decided I wanted to spend some time practicing my Spanish, as well as my scientific skills, in Latin America. I sent a flurry of emails to everyone I knew in marine biology in addition to researchers I had never met. After several months of searching I was able to arrange an internship at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Panama studying the behavior of fiddler crabs. While there I applied to Moss Landing; and here I am!

Q: Why did you decide to pursue marine science?

A: Growing up in Seattle, I didn’t spend a whole lot of time IN the water. On the water: yes; IN the water: no. When I was 7 years old my family moved to Guadalajara, Mexico for a year. While on a road trip with my family in the Yucatan, a family friend from New York City taught me how to snorkel. After a few hours of trying out the techniques in the hotel pool, we headed down a dirt road to a ‘hidden’ lagoon of corals and brightly colored fishes. At least it seemed hidden at the time, now it is likely a hotel swimming pool. My memories of that day are of intense blues, greens and reds. I’ve never seriously considered anything but marine biology since. A bit closed minded, I’ll admit.

Q: What experiences and opportunities have shaped your path to get you where you are now?

A: I’d say everything I’ve just said all over again. However, having very supportive and enthusiastic parents has been possibly the most important element that has shaped my path.

Q: What are you studying and why is it interesting and important to you?

A: To be honest, my interests in marine biology are mostly selfish. I grew up in the Pacific Northwest and I truly enjoy eating fresh seafood such as salmon and crab. Unfortunately, I am not alone, and according to the Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO); fish provides at least 20% of animal protein for at least 1.5 billion people worldwide. That is a whole lot of fish! Due to the enormous amount of fish and other marine life taken from the sea, it is very important to manage fisheries in a sustainable manner. My current research is focused on finding accurate estimates of life history parameters, which are essential to successful fisheries management. This information is used to set catch limits and gear sizes to protect the fish stocks from depletion. My two study species are the Bering skate, Bathyraja interrupta, and the whitebrow skate, Bathyraja minispinosa, which are both found in Alaskan waters.

So what do I mean by “life history parameters”? From a fisheries management perspective it is important to know how long the fish lives, how big the fish can get, how many offspring the fish can have and how often it can reproduce. An additional important parameter is the size and age at maturity. The strategy would differ, if the fish you are managing lives for 50 years and doesn’t start reproducing until they are 30 years old, or if they live for 6 years but start reproducing at age 1. There are many additional aspects of a fish’s life history that are important to management, however these are the questions I have focused my research on.

Q: What are you hoping or planning to do when you finish?

A: When I finish my masters degree at Moss Landing Marine Laboratories, I plan to apply to jobs in fisheries science with any of the state and federal agencies that have jurisdiction over the west coast of the US. Eventually I would like to return to school to earn a Ph.D., but for now, there are bills to pay.

Q: What are the most rewarding and challenging aspects of graduate school?

A: Oh, tough question. . . I would say that there are many rewarding aspects of graduate school, and after all I wouldn’t be writing a blog to encourage you to go into marine science if I didn’t think that there were rewarding aspects. Mainly, at graduate school you learn to be an independent researcher, while in parallel discover how much you can learn from your peers around you. Some of my most rewarding moments have been in conversation with another student when we both discover interesting aspects of our own research we had not considered before. However, it’s not all swimming with dolphins and chasing sharks (in fact I haven’t done either since enrolling in graduate school). You have to be willing to work long hours, through nights and weekends. You may or may not get funding for your research, so you may need to work odd jobs to pay the bills. Sometimes you may have to drop everything and hop on a boat for several weeks to help collect someone else’s data. And sometimes you don’t have time to walk your dog or tie your shoes. If you’re thinking of grad school I recommend holding off on getting the cute puppy and wearing lots of flip flops.

Q: What advice do you have for someone who wants to get in to marine science?

1) Apply for any and every opportunity in the field! Many of the internship opportunities I had didn’t just fall in my lap. I was very proactive about finding mentors and seeking out new experiences. For example, when I graduated from UCSB I knew I wanted to find a paid internship somewhere in a Spanish speaking country (since I needed to practice all that Spanish I’d learned in high school and college). I just searched the internet for interesting researchers and emailed them my resume, expressing interest in their work. Mostly people wrote back to say that they could not afford to pay an intern or that they had no opportunities at the moment. Yet, all it took was one offer, and soon enough I was looking for an apartment in Panama City!

2) Get out there and meet people with similar interests. They say that in marine biology it’s all about who you know. While that is not entirely true, who you know, or don’t know, can make a difference. Even if there are no opportunities for you in a lab at your college, you can still introduce yourself to people and get to know them. Check and see if there are any conferences happening near you in your field of interest. You may be able to hear some great talks by people you may want to work with in your field. There are many opportunities out there, you just have to keep your eyes and ears open.

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2 Responses to Shaara Ainsley

  1. Pingback: The importance of ageing – how is a skate like a fine wine? (or not?) « The Drop-In to Moss Landing Marine Labs

  2. Pingback: Teeny Tiny Vertebrae = Hours of Microscope Fun « The Drop-In to Moss Landing Marine Labs

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