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ASU shark scientist: Fatal shark attacks 'extremely rare'

People kill sharks at an astronomical rate compared to human fatalities.
Tips for avoiding shark bites: Swim during day, don't wear shiny objects.
August 6, 2020

Plus, ways you can reduce your chance of being bitten while swimming

Arizona State University Professor James Sulikowski has been studying sharks around the world for more than 25 years and is a frequent contributor to the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week series. So when a 63-year-old woman was killed Monday, July 27 — the first recorded fatal shark attack in the state of Maine — national news media including the New York Times and ABC’s Good Morning America contacted Sulikowski for his expertise.

Through his work with the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab in ASU’s New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences, Sulikowski and his students use innovative technologies such as ultrasounds and satellite tags to follow pregnant sharks across vast swaths of Earth’s oceans. He will also teach a course on sharks this fall, "The Biology of Sharks, Skates, and Rays."

After the fatal attack, incidents of shark sightings prompted beach closures from New York to Maine as local governments deployed helicopters and boats to track large sharks.

Question: What’s happening along the New England coast right now with shark activity that’s attracting so much attention?

Answer: Anytime there’s a fatal shark attack, it really gets people’s attention. It’s terrible, its horrific, but it is also extremely rare. People didn’t understand that white sharks have been living there forever, since long before people settled there. And there haven’t been any (recorded) fatal attacks in all that time. So, it really tells you that we are not on their dinner plate. There are sharks all across the water, really close to shore all the time. When you think about all the hundreds of millions of people that are in the water year-round, and maybe a hundred are bitten and maybe 10 die, it gives you a sense of how rare those interactions are.

Q: Reports indicate this recent attack occurred only about 20 yards off the beach in Maine. How typical is it that sharks wander that close to the shore?

A: Very typical. You have to understand that the Maine coastline is very different there as compared to Florida or Southern California where 20 yards out into the water, it may only be waist deep. But in that part of New England, you may be in 50, 60, 70 feet of water; it drops off very quickly. Each one of those areas has a different sort of shark population. And in Maine, it just happens to be the biggest and the baddest, the white shark, that are coming close to shore.

The problem is we are coastal people; we like being in the water. We like swimming around; we like enjoying the water. It just so happens there are also lots of other things in the water that live there. Seals are one of those, and seals are the primary food for white sharks. So white sharks come close to shore to feed on seals. We’re in the water, we’re close to shore and sometimes get caught in the middle between sharks and their seal prey.

Q: Is this increased shark activity typical for this time of year, or is something driving unusual behavior?

A: This is very typical for this time of year because there are so many more people in the water, and the more people, the more interaction chances occur. In general, there are always apex predator sharks in the water and some of those are a lot closer than you would ever imagine.

Q: What is an apex predator and how may that be a threat to people?

A: Apex predators are at the top of the food chain, and they serve a very important role in culling out the weak, the sick, the dying populations of prey and keeping them from overpopulating and eating more than they should. For sharks, those prey are seals, which can have a very similar size and mass to a swimming person. But we are not as nimble in the water. Our swimming actually mimics a seal in distress as we splash around. Those sound waves attract sharks. Even worse, sharks are attracted to shiny things, like fish scales reflecting the light — so a watch, or jewelry or maybe even a necklace can make us look like something that’s ringing the dinner bell for larger predators like sharks.

Q: In your experience, are certain species of sharks more or less aggressive than others? And do those species present a realistic threat to humans?

A: There are really just three species of sharks that are known to fatally attack a human and these three are the primary offenders of any fatalities that occur anywhere in the world: tiger sharks, white sharks and bull sharks. But all the rest of the sharks out there are under 5 feet in length and the vast majority are under 3 feet long. These little guys are absolutely no threat to us in any shape or form. Those mid-level sharks, 5- to 7-feet-long, are notoriously good at exploratory bites — just biting and letting go. So, all these bites we’ve seen recently around Florida are these sharks that are just checking out, say, a dangling foot in the water that may have something shiny on it. As soon as they bite down, it’s like, “Oh, this is not what I want,” and they move on.

A satellite tracking tag is attached to the fin of a Tiger Shark in The Bahamas.

Using satellite tracking technology, the Sulikowski Shark and Fish Conservation Lab tags sharks with GPS tags to record animal movements across the oceans. The tags broadcast data for up to 12 months offering scientists a glimpse into seasonal behavior. Photo by Tanya Houppermans/Blue Elements Imaging

But sharks have a conveyor belt of teeth. Every month they grow a new set of razor-sharp teeth than can absolutely slash through us like a hot knife through butter. Their behavior is really just based on seeking food and people just accidently get in the way. Of all the sharks, only bull sharks are known for being sort of territorial and can be the most unpredictable of all sharks. And they can be found close to shore and can pose a real problem for people if they’re swimming in murky water and are accidentally mistaken for food.

Q: As some shark species are threatened, does human behavior actually present more of a threat to their survival?

A: Absolutely, both directly and indirectly. While things like climate change impact sharks indirectly, people kill sharks at an astronomical rate compared to human fatalities. For every person killed by a shark each year, somewhere around 11 million sharks are sacrificed or killed, so yes, humans are a much bigger threat to sharks than they are to us.

Q: What are some easy ways to reduce the chance of being on a shark’s dinner plate, short of just avoiding the ocean altogether?

A: Step No. 1 is to simply avoid hot spots where sharks are active close to shore. On popular beaches, lifeguards put out flags or you can just ask them. If there are seals or a lot of fishing in the area, watch out. Do a little bit of research before you venture into a new area.

Second, stay out of the water between dusk and dawn. Sharks have incredible night vision that allows them to be successful predators in the dark.

And third, avoid wearing shiny objects, particularly in southern, warmer waters. That’s where there are a lot of smaller sharks are known for investigating by biting. They’re going for the shiny objects that can look like a floundering fish.

These are the important things anybody who likes the water can do. But it really depends on where you are. In some places you might not want to go into water more than waist deep. But most importantly, just be diligent, know your surroundings and stay away from hot spots.

Top photo: ASU Professor James Sulikowski and students perform an ultrasound examination on a pregnant tiger shark. Photo by Tanya Houppermans/Blue Elements Imaging

Richard Holland

Director Marketing and Communications , New College of Interdisciplinary Arts and Sciences


Summer pilot program aims to increase diversity in engineering

August 6, 2020

If engineers are going to improve the quality of life in the communities they serve, the field must reflect the diversity of those communities.

Black students are particularly underrepresented in engineering, comprising only 4% of U.S. engineering undergraduate students in 2016. According to the National Science Foundation, the number of Black students earning doctoral degrees is rising, especially for students who earned science and engineering bachelor’s degrees from Historically Black Colleges and Universities, or HBCUs — a group of more than 100 higher education institutions which serve primarily Black communities. Graphic of four people interacting with objects representing different areas of science. Diversity in engineering is key to the discipline’s ability to effectively serve all aspects of a community’s needs. Intel Corporation partnered with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University in Tallahassee to sponsor students from a historically Black university to gain access to high-impact research and Intel mentors for an eight-week summer engineering pilot program. Graphic courtesy of Shutterstock Download Full Image

Intel Corporation’s HBCU Program aims to provide scholarships and career development opportunities to help increase the number of Black students who graduate with STEM degrees and enter technology careers. To advance a common goal of expanding the pipeline of Black graduate students in STEM, Intel is collaborating with the Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering at Arizona State University and Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University, an HBCU in Tallahassee, for the ASU/FAMU Summer Engineering Program pilot.

Intel sponsored seven students from FAMU to participate in an eight-week ASU Summer Research Internship, or SURI, where they conducted research with Fulton Schools faculty members and graduate students. The students also received a combined $5,000 stipend from Intel and the Fulton Schools for the summer.

“Summer engineering research helps students envision themselves with a graduate degree in STEM in an industry or academic career,” said Heather Mattisson, Intel strategy manager for university partnerships, global diversity, inclusion and social impact. “It also provides key connections with faculty and exposes students to the rigors of a graduate school experience. Students in the program are gaining additional pathways to a graduate degree with the support of a strong partnership between our organizations.”

The pilot program was conceived last year during the annual Intel HBCU Consortium, at which Intel’s university partners and six HBCUs gather to form new collaborations and share information about Intel’s classroom technology, curriculum and research resources.

“With this partnership in place, students can participate in top research alongside brilliant ASU faculty to really develop their skills, participate in use-inspired research opportunities and gain an understanding of what graduate study might be like,” said Anca Castillo, associate director of engineering student recruitment in the Fulton Schools, who attended the consortium and was instrumental in bringing the partnership together.

The benefits of such a program are far-reaching. Several of the FAMU students say they are now considering advanced degrees after working with ASU faculty members and graduate students and making connections with Intel engineers.

The summer program helped students explore the possibilities of graduate studies at ASU or careers at Intel. But more than that, it solidified just how much both academia and industry as a whole can benefit from increasing diversity through partnerships such as this one.

Summer program increases access to high-impact research

While the COVID-19 pandemic forced SURI to move online, the program forged ahead with the students conducting research remotely.

Some students elected to partner with faculty members working in areas they were already familiar with due to their majors, while others stepped out of their comfort zones to tackle engineering topics in which they had little experience.

Lalitha Sankar, a Fulton Schools associate professor of electrical engineering, worked with FAMU students Grant Steans and Mafuor Tanji on artificial intelligence, machine learning and decision-making algorithms, particularly in ways that promote fairness and social good. As a woman of color in engineering, she has firsthand experiences with biases in engineering and mathematical sciences that will require diversity to overcome.

“As technology gets applied more and more to human decision-making, it is crucial to make sure that the technology we design is inclusive and designed without bias,” Sankar said. “This, in itself, will benefit from diversity among those designing these tools.”

Portrait of Grant Steans

Grant Steans, an electrical engineering graduate student at Florida Agricultural and Mechanical University.

Grant Steans is already a graduate student studying electrical engineering at FAMU. During his last year as a computer engineering undergrad, he discovered an interest in machine learning, which sparked his decision to continue his studies and conduct research.

“I chose to work with Dr. Sankar this summer because of her theoretical knowledge of machine learning,” Steans said. “Her incorporation of linear algebra to teach things like regression, optimization and the bias/variance trade-off is something I had not experienced in such a detailed manner. She also introduced me to problems that required me to derive different forms of the linear regression algorithm to support my results.”

Steans came away from the experience with a new perspective on his passion and its applications. Before completing the eight-week program, he had already begun to engage his new machine learning skills as a data analyst at a local nonprofit organization in Tallahassee, Florida, We Are All We Need. With a goal of ending youth homelessness in Florida, Steans is using the new data science he learned to create baselines and models for trends in arrests, truancy, recidivism, poverty and other factors to present to city commissioners, mayors and police chiefs to make a difference in the community through social and emotional services and other programs.

“This experience taught me that certain skills that I hold as a researcher map to multiple industries, even though those industries aren’t heavily technical,” Steans said, adding that he shifted his plans for his thesis to align his interests in machine learning and social issues.

“When Grant told me that I had opened this door to him to bring technology to social justice, it just made my hour, day and week,” Sankar said.

Adolfo R. Escobedo, a Fulton Schools assistant professor of industrial engineering, said it is important to increase access to research experiences for underrepresented students. Escobedo himself did not conduct research until graduate school because he didn’t know the opportunities existed.

“Had I engaged in research, I believe I would have enjoyed it, which could have further helped me stay motivated in school,” Escobedo said. “Underrepresented students bring their own unique perspectives and experiences that would bring much needed change in academia and beyond.”

Escobedo worked with four FAMU students: electrical engineering majors Iyonda Lewis and Alex Ndekeng, computer science major Pierre Cireus and industrial engineering major Christina Anderson.

Cireus and Lewis worked with Escobedo on learning about “enhancing the wisdom of the crowd” in two different contexts and how diversity of crowds is important for achieving accurate outcomes. The students developed projects that use crowdsourced data to train computer programs to help budget vacations and to identify objects in images.

Ndekeng worked on understanding technologies for “Power System Planning against Rising Temperatures” and Anderson worked on “Optimization Models for Sustainable Logistics.”

Portrait of Iyonda Lewis

Iyonda Lewis, an electrical engineering undergraduate student at FAMU.

Lewis, who will be a third-year electrical engineering student at FAMU in the fall, worked closely with Yeawon Yoo, one of Escobedo’s industrial engineering doctoral students.

“I got to talk to Yeawon about the ins and outs of graduate school, and how impactful study habits and preparation are at the graduate level,” Lewis said. “She not only encouraged my questions about our topic, but also promoted my improvement and growth, as research can be utilized to contribute knowledge, develop and improve processes.”

Reading research journal papers, learning and practicing new concepts related to object detection and figuring out how to solve engineering problems alongside other students in other majors was a valuable experience for Lewis that changed her outlook about advanced degrees.

“I had a spark about grad school,” Lewis said. “This program made me much more interested than before.”

Rebecca Muenich, a Fulton Schools assistant professor of environmental engineering, worked with FAMU biomedical engineering major Daeshavon Johnson. Despite their completely different focus areas — watershed modeling in agriculture for Muenich and prosthetic development for Johnson — they found common ground in how biomedical engineering could be applied to agriculture through the study of how biodiversity relates to  biotechnology through a case study of the Atlantic Forest in Brazil.

“Having one-on-one time with a faculty member who doesn’t control your degree or grade, I think gives students an opportunity to be more open and to expand their skills,” Muenich said. “I hope it also gives them a chance to work on their own science, which I think can help build confidence.”

Faculty members say they were also honored to be a part of a program aimed at increasing access to engineering research for Black students during a time of social change.

“This was a special experience at an extraordinary time in our country’s history,” Sankar said. “I am fortunate to be a part of it in some small form.”

Diverse range of Intel engineers share their experiences

In addition to doing research and making connections with faculty members and graduate students, the FAMU participants were paired with mentors who are professional engineers and computer scientists. Many of the program mentors attended HBCUs or experienced earning advanced degrees and entering the technology industry as underrepresented minorities and first-generation college students.

“The ASU/FAMU Summer Engineering Program is designed to provide holistic support to students,” Mattisson said. “FAMU students have been paired with Intel mentors with graduate degrees who can support students during the program and share their experience in the tech industry.”

FAMU student Grant Steans worked with Intel Technology Development Engineer Collins Adetu, who participated in the pilot from Portland, Oregon, and is also a FAMU alumnus. Adetu’s mentorship was a tremendous help to Steans throughout the program.

“We were able to discuss our struggles of working remotely and my personal goals for this summer,” Steans said. “He helped guide me to the right questions I need to ask myself in terms of this program and my continuing career. He also helped me tailor this experience to understand the full benefit for my professional establishment and continued research opportunities.”

Participants also attended weekly Zoom virtual engagement sessions hosted by Intel engineers and computer scientists in addition to ASU faculty members. They discussed Intel technology and careers, and shared tips that were key to their success in earning advanced degrees and landing jobs in the tech industry.

The students were particularly inspired by the journey of Marcus Kennedy, an alum of the FAMU and Florida State University Joint College of Engineering, who is also an ASU adjunct professor and general manager of Intel's Gaming Division. Kennedy, the leadership sponsor for Intel’s FAMU partnership, earned a bachelor’s degree in industrial engineering before getting a master’s degree in business administration and management. Hearing Kennedy speak about his journey of twists and turns, numerous failures and ultimate success inspired students to think differently about their futures.

“During his presentation, (Kennedy) shared his career path and how his decisions always led back to his greatest passion in life,” Steans said. “It taught me that as long as you can remain true to the things you enjoy in life, things will work out — no matter how many rejections and other obstacles may appear in your career path.”

The pilot program has been a positive experience during a summer of uncertainty and upheaval. Students are leaving the eight-week experience with newfound confidence and perspectives in engineering, unique insight from students in the process of earning advanced degrees and impactful mentors who will continue to meet with them even after the program has ended.

As the summer wraps up, Intel, FAMU and ASU will consider plans for the program’s future and potential for a longer-term partnership.

Monique Clement

Lead communications specialist, Ira A. Fulton Schools of Engineering