Travel Report: Jennifer Bigman, Biological Sciences

November 01, 2017

Jennifer Bigman, a PhD student in Biological Sciences, received a Graduate International Research Travel Award (GIRTA) to further her research in the East Coast of the United States. Her report: 

After receiving a Graduate International and Research Award (GIRTA) from SFU, I went to the U.S. East Coast during August and September 2017 to collect and process samples for my PhD research. I visited five different institutions during this time, including Georgia Southern University, South Carolina Department of Natural Resources, Florida State University’s Coastal and Marine Laboratory, National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) Southeast Fisheries Science Center, and the University of North Carolina Wilmington. Most of this time was spent out on the water fishing to collect samples, and some of the time was spent back in the lab to process samples and prepare them to be shipped back to SFU.

My PhD research aims to understand the physiological basis of life histories and population dynamics with a focus on metabolism and respiratory morphology. One important component of this work is its conservation application; the goal is to be able to predict the relative risk of extinction for a species based on its underlying physiology. This work is being applied to fishes, specifically the sharks and rays, which are one of the most Threatened vertebrate groups.

For this project, I need to measure the surface area of the respiratory morphology of an array of shark and ray species, and must collect many, many samples. As you can imagine, obtaining the respiratory morphology of sharks and rays isn’t easy. This sent me on a journey across the continent to partner with other scientists on the U.S. East Coast that actively fish for sharks and rays in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

The institutions I visited were mostly all working together on two different surveys—one of these surveys was in the Atlantic (Cooperative Atlantic States Shark Pupping and Nursery Survey, COASTSPAN), and the other was in the Gulf of Mexico (Cooperative Gulf of Mexico Shark Pupping and Nursery Survey, GULFSPAN). These surveys aim to determine the location of shark nursery grounds as well as shark abundance, distribution, and movement of sharks and rays within these waters. My part was to serve as a deckhand on the fishing vessels that executed the surveys, which entailed fishing from dawn to dusk in the Atlantic and Gulf of Mexico.

Both of these surveys used similar fishing gear and fished randomly within a certain area relatively nearshore. Most of what we caught was recorded in terms of the species, size, sex, and was thrown back alive. For the animals that perished in the nets, I got to collect them and bring them back to the lab.

Overall, we collected almost 200 samples. These samples will provide invaluable data to help us understand how physiology is related to the ecology and biology of a species. My time out at sea and working with many different scientists from many institutions was an incredible opportunity that I feel very fortunate to have had.

I saw first-hand how collaborative science can be, and was inspired by the other people I worked with. I was struck by how wonderful and helpful other researchers in my field are, and am especially grateful to the students and researchers that stayed well into the evening to help me process samples after a long day of fishing! I am also grateful to SFU for the GIRTA funding and to Nick Dulvy for this opportunity.

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