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Shark research in the desert?

ASU researchers benefit from the university's proximity to shark research hotbeds

Three people stand on a boat doing the ASU forks up hand sign.

Thanks to President's Professor Lara Ferry's functional morphology lab, (from left) Sarah Handy, David Shiffman and Sarika Sawant have access to hands-on shark research and fieldwork. Photo courtesy Sarika Sawant

July 10, 2023

Despite being situated in the desert, students at Arizona State University are diving straight into the deep end of shark research. 

In honor of Shark Week coming up this July, ASU News explored how Sarah Handy and Sarika Sawant, students in the School of Life Sciences at The College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, have access to hands-on shark research and fieldwork with Lara Ferry’s functional morphology lab.

Ferry, the associate vice president of research at the Knowledge Enterprise and a President’s Professor, is also a graduate faculty with the School of Life Sciences. Her lab studies organisms to help understand their basic structure and function in an ecological and historical context.

A shark's eye view of research

Sharks play a pivotal role in the ocean’s ecosystem.

On top of keeping the food web balanced, the diverse role of over 500 species of sharks encourages biodiversity and helps keep the ocean clean.

Ferry's lab and the resources provided allow Handy and Sawant to conduct their graduate and doctoral research projects on sharks at ASU’s West campus. The materials, partnerships and equipment provide a one-stop shop for everything they need.

“The strength of our research enterprise makes ASU a great place to do research no matter what you are working on,” Ferry said. “You need a university that can support the research and ASU is as top-notch as it gets.”

Utilizing relationships with fisheries and other agencies, Ferry’s lab gets shark heads and other body parts in coolers sent via FedEx for research.

The university’s proximity to places that are hotbeds for shark research also makes landlocked Arizona a great center for research.

“In terms of getting the sharks or getting to the sharks, we are really close to several major areas,” Ferry said. “Our location is key because we can go to Southern California, Baja California and the Gulf of Mexico for field research.”

The team researches sharks in Ft. Lauderdale, Florida. Photo courtesy Field School

David Shiffman, a faculty research associate at ASU, assists Ferry and her students in the functional morphology lab but also leads a shark biology course for Nova Southeastern University graduate students in south Florida.

Shiffman’s role as a researcher with the lab presented Handy and Sawant with the ability to participate in a three-day experience this summer on a shark research vessel.

During the experience, they learned different fishing techniques for sharks, how to conduct research, and how to take measurements and do biopsies for tissue samples.

“This is a practical, hands-on way of getting experience in the field for students,” Shiffman said. “You’re going to need to know how to do this, so you might as well learn in a fun, safe, inclusive and supportive environment.”

For Sawant, who is pursuing a master’s degree in biology, her work on the research vessel was her first fieldwork experience as a student.

“I mean it’s super cool, actually being able to put the skills I’ve been learning in the lab into action,” Sawant said. “You always see on Shark Week or things like that, people are going out into the field and having these experiences.

“The first shark we caught was a hammerhead shark. It was actually the first shark I’ve seen in the ocean, which was awesome. Then working with the shark, it’s an unreal experience.”

Handy, a fourth-year PhD candidate studying environmental life sciences, has conducted several research projects in her five years of studying sharks at ASU. 

As more of an experimental biologist, Handy works with model systems and raises species in a lab. However, the trip to Florida and performing research as part of a field school was a new experience for her.

“It was cool to see things happen out in the wild. I’ve been calling myself a shark biologist for five years now, and I had not actually seen one in the wild, until now,” Handy said.

Plus, the experience of everyone on the boat made it a “nonstop cycle of forever learning,” Handy said.

“Field school is a great example of everyone being learners. I might be particularly good at one thing, and I can share that with my colleagues and they do the same. There’s no assumption that they know better just because someone has more experience.”

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