As a marine biology major, Mikaela Edwards was eager to be part of a team of students whose research brought them in daily contact with great white sharks, bottlenose dolphins, and humpback whales.
“After this experience, I said, ‘this is what I want to do with my future,’” said Edwards, a 2014 graduate (B.S., Marine Biology) of the Farquhar College of Arts and Sciences, who spent four weeks in December 2013 participating in a unique student learning and research program at Oceans Research Institute in Mossel Bay, South Africa.
Working with scientists and graduate students, Edwards was one of about 20 undergraduate students from around the world who participated in diverse conservation and research projects focusing on the marine species inhabiting Mossel Bay.
Research at the institute focuses on local sharks, whales, dolphins, seals, and fish species. Great white sharks frequent the bay to hunt for seals, fish, and bottlenose dolphins. The institute operates a shark research laboratory and a shark aquarium.
“We assisted and participated in many different projects,” Edwards said. “Our main job was to lure the sharks closer to the boat [by dragging bait behind it] so we could get a detailed look at the sharks with an underwater camera. We all did different jobs. Someone dragged the chum bait. Someone took the photos. Someone was the ‘spotter.’ The water was beautifully clear.”
The photographs help scientists determine a shark’s size, gender, and distinguishing characteristics such as scars or deformities, as well as estimate the size of the bay’s shark population.
“We spotted one shark [about 15 feet long] with a giant hook in its pectoral fin,” Edwards said.
Edwards also assisted in tagging and tracking dolphins and whales. She learned how to skipper a boat and about aquarium care, including monitoring the water, feeding the animals, and cleaning the tanks. She took part in an African game safari and kept a field journal.
“We had classes at night on how to take photos, collect data, come up with a thesis study, and do what an actual researcher would do,” she said.
Edwards, who is from New Hampshire, came to NSU to pursue a passion for marine science––an interest sparked by her father and ignited by her professors at the college. She is also pursuing a minor in marine ecology.
“I got a great taste of this during my research in South Africa,” she said. “Before, I wanted to go to veterinary school for marine mammals. This experience changed me. Now, I would like to be involved in an institute like this and be able to do my own research.
“This type of research and hands-on learning gives you the experience that can be a push forward or let you step back and rethink what you want to do in your future,” Edwards said.
“Mickie was able to get actual hands-on experience working with elasmobranchs off the coast of South Africa,” said Amy Hirons, Ph.D., assistant professor at the college who serves as chair of the marine biology major. “She would not have qualified for and received such an opportunity without the academic and research background provided to her at NSU. Mickie’s independent study research was a strong factor in her being chosen for this program and will be beneficial for advanced education and employment goals.”
Robin Sherman, Ph.D., associate dean at the college, recommended Edwards for the program in South Africa because of her dedication to marine science.
“She is willing to work hard and really apply what she’s learned,” Sherman said of Edwards, who was her student in two courses.
“Marine biology is an applied science. To learn about it in the classroom is to learn only half.
In order to appreciate the importance of science in learning about and protecting nature (and the animals we study) you must go out into the field and actually do the work. There is no other way to make the transition from student to professional.
“Experiences like this one are priceless,” Sherman said.
Edwards credits her professors at NSU, including Sherman and Hirons, for inspiring her passion for marine science and to participate in the Oceans Research program. “The professors show you how big the world is and what is important––including conservation,” she said. “Hearing about their experiences is very inspiring.”
Edwards plan to pursue a master's degree in marine biology at NSU's Oceanographic Center and continue her work in shark research.