Swimming With Sharks

Matt Hawkins
July 29, 2015

Sarah Gagnon ’16 spent the first weeks of her summer vacation in the Gulf of Mexico catching rays — in the most scientific sense of the phrase. The biology major from Antioch, Illinois handled stingrays and sharks during a two-week research experience through the Coastal Marine Education and Research Academy.

Because she grew up 1,000 miles from the nearest ocean, the trip was Gagnon’s first chance to experience her lifelong dream of working in marine biology. As she hoped, it excited her to continue the path toward a career.

“This was such a great opportunity because it was a hands-on experience where our instructors let us do almost everything with tagging, measuring and handling animals,” she said. “Field research is hard but it’s also very rewarding in the long run.”

CMERA is a Clearwater, Florida-based program that offers college students an intensive in-the-field research experience.

Gagnon and a dozen other college students took boats a few miles off the Florida shore each day to find, study and document creatures of the sea. They learned how to safely catch, tag and record data on the creatures before returning them back into the water.

Though long days focused on sharks and stingrays, students also handled turtles and other fish that crossed their path.

In addition to hands-on research, students listened to brief daily lectures from CMERA’s researchers, who taught understudies about the complex relationships between diverse members of the Gulf’s ecosystems. A number of discussions addressed needs for conservation and future research.

“We know little changes can have major impacts in the world,” Gagnon said. “After this experience, I will advocate for conservation of marine and terrestrial environments because I’ve seen how connected every part of an ecosystem is.”

Additionally, she recognized the value of learning research techniques in the field well beyond the friendly confines of Bradley’s science labs. Whether her path leads to graduate school or straight to the workforce, the knowledge will be an asset when she pursues those opportunities next year.

“Doing research like this as an undergraduate will give me a head start and an idea of what I enjoy,” she said. “I’ll have a more-focused direction for that next step and won’t go into it blind.”