Shark Questions? Ask Derek
Have a question about sharks or the marine environment? Then Dr. Derek Burkholder is the guy to ask.
A research associate at Nova Southeastern University, one of Derek’s roles is to speak to classes all over the world. No, he doesn’t have a Donald Trump-like travel budget—the majority of these sessions are done via Skype.
You grew up in Michigan. How did you connect with the oceans? What inspired you?
I grew up in the woods and on the lakes and rivers around Michigan. I have always loved the outdoors and especially the water. My family traveled to Florida for spring breaks, etc., for many years growing up, and that love for the oceans started to grow. As my folks tell it, the first time I said I wanted to be a marine biologist was when I was nine years old, and we had just taken part in a swamp eco tour in Florida with a biologist on the boat telling everyone what we were seeing. I decided at that point that is what I wanted to do!
Looking back, is there a teacher who inspired you?
I have been very fortunate to have a number of amazing teachers over the years. But Dr. Jeff Carrier and Dr. Mike Heithaus have had the biggest influences on me, especially later in my career development in marine and especially shark biology. Jeff allowed me to get a foot in the door by taking me on a number of field expeditions to help with his ongoing nurse shark mating behavior research in the Dry Tortugas. It was on one of these trips that I met my doctoral advisor, Mike Heithaus, who has been extremely influential in helping to shape and direct me in my scientific career.
What’s the most amazing experience you’ve had in shark research work?
With the nature of shark research, there are too many great experiences to count. I have been able to travel around the world to some incredible places, and I get to work with these large, powerful, majestic animals every day! However, I was fortunate to be able to take part in a couple of deep-sea shark research cruises. Amazing people, lots of animals and some crazy weather to throw into the mix. But it is pretty hard to beat pulling a five-meter bluntnose sixgill onto the boat!
This is a BluntNose SixGill Shark. Imagine this thing - 15' long - onboard. The good doctor thought it was pretty amazing too.
Why is speaking to kids so important to you?
I believe if we want to elicit changes in the ways of thinking and behavior of people in response to things like marine conservation, it all has to start with the kids. These are the people who will be making these decisions in years to come. By interacting with and teaching students early on about the importance of a healthy ocean, and the role of some of the large marine animals we study, hopefully, we can light a spark in a few of these students to pursue marine science and marine conservation as a career. Also, one of the best ways into the hearts and minds of the older generations is through their children, so I believe that exciting students and kids can impact change in their parents as well
What do you want kids to take away from the Skype sessions?
One of the great aspects of the Skype format is that I can speak with students in Florida in the morning, and speak with people from Arizona, Australia or Pakistan in the afternoon. There are many people who may never see the ocean, and so I feel that it is a privilege to bring a little piece of the ocean to these students around the world. The oceans (and ocean health) impact everyone on Earth, whether we live on the coast or live in the middle of a desert. I want kids to begin to understand this global connection with the ocean, and to share some of my passion for the oceans and these amazing animals I get to learn about. I also hope to raise awareness of some of the stressors that the oceans, and especially sharks and other large marine animals, are facing today and help them learn a few ways that they can help out no matter where they live.
On a recent day, you spoke to a class in upstate New York, a class in Utah, a class in Canada and a class in Pakistan. Did you do anything special to prepare for such diverse audiences?
I have prepared a number of different lessons to present based on the audience. These lessons are mainly broken down by age groups. However, a large portion of my lesson is based around questions that the students and teachers have about sharks, the ocean, marine biology, etc. So in that format, it is a little bit easier to tailor it to each group, based on questions that are being asked. I try to do two rounds of questions. The first set takes place before the lesson starts, and I use those questions to gauge the knowledge and interest level of each particular class of students. I then give the lesson, which is followed by the second round of questions that the students come up with in response to what we talk about during the lesson.
Has a student’s question ever stumped you?
Yes, absolutely, one of the great things about talking to a diverse group of students of varying backgrounds and age levels is that I get an amazing diversity of questions. There are a few — Have you ever been bitten by a shark?, What is your favorite shark?, etc.—that come up often. But after that, the questions are endless. The greatest thing about working in the scientific field is that we get to ask questions for a living (and hopefully figure out a few answers every once and a while as well!). There are times when the students come up with questions that I may not know the answer to, so I will try to do a bit of research and get back to them with the answers.
Tell us about a cool, groundbreaking marine research project you’d like to do.
I am very interested in the role that large-bodied marine animals play in the ecosystems where they live. Sharks are a great model as many species fill the role of apex predator in their ecosystems and can exhibit significant top/down control in many ecosystems. The work of the Guy Harvey Research Institute, which is working to understand the habitat use and migration patterns of many shark and billfish species, provides invaluable information to help us understand the role these sharks may play in different areas around the globe. I would like to pair this habitat use/migration information with diet and behavioral studies to get a better understanding of the role of these animals in the marine ecosystem.