SURF’s up 2017: RI undergrads in research

“I think that pursuing this path has been me trying to prove to not only myself, but to everyone else, that someone like me can succeed in this field. I never thought I would have the privilege to do this.”

Yi_Hannah1Research fellow: Hannah Yi
Hometown: Los Angeles, CA
School: Brown University
Major: Geology-Biology

The Rhode Island NSF EPSCoR Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowship (SURF) aims to give students hands-on, full-time experience and insight into what life as a scientist is like.

Hannah Yi, a rising senior, says she gained exactly that on a shark tagging project with Dr. Bradley Wetherbee, a teaching professor in the University of Rhode Island Department of Biological Sciences, College of the Environment and Life Sciences.

Originally, the project intended to survey Rhode Island sharks, but plans shifted and Yi’s work ended up focusing on so-called knifing events of mako sharks, the behavior when a shark swims with its dorsal fin above the water surface.

“It definitely was a reminder of how science can be in terms of not always being able to do what you want when you want,” Yi says, laughing.

Taking data Wetherbee had already gathered, Yi explains how she helped investigate when the sharks surfaced, how often, at what time of day or night, dawn or dusk, season or latitude: “We ran a lot of different tests to see if there were any relationships between frequency and a whole bunch of different variables.”

If the scientists can spot trends, says Yi, they might better understand how the sharks are using different parts of the water in different regions of the world for different purposes — and how climate change may pose any impact on behavior. And, she adds, a better understanding will lead to improved management of the species.

“If they are coming up to the surface, they are more prone to being fished and killed,” Yi says. “A lot of the work has been on computers, looking at really big data sets, trying to make sense of what these pings from tagged sharks are telling us.”

Hannah Yi fishing for sharks
Hannah Yi helps reel in a shark for tagging | courtesy photo

Every time a tagged shark surfaces, the scientists can retrieve satellite location data for the time of day, which day and year, and latitude and longitude. For Yi, the computer work involved converting the data points from Greenwich Mean Time and then local times for tens of thousands of data points, and entering and reentering data. Her efforts yielded results both significant and not.

“We found a few relationships between time of day and time of year and gender and latitudes with knifing events,” Yi says. “But, we’ve only done this with the western Atlantic mako sharks, which gives insight, but there are more projects from different oceans with different species.”

Before the end of her fellowship, Yi scored a chance to go out into the field for a shark tagging experience. On a recent early morning, she headed out with a crew 12 miles south of Point Judith, directly east of Block Island.

Yi describes how the breeze pushed the boat along, with a sheen of chum leading to the boat. The crew set out out lines and waited. Soon enough, she says, they caught and tagged nine sharks — one mako and eight blue.

For the blue sharks, the tagging is for archival purposes rather than recording. Yi says they used a big pole with a needle to lodge a tag on the fin. For the mako, though, the process was more complicated and involved bringing the shark aboard the boat to attach a satellite transmitter.

“It was very feisty!” Yi notes. “The shark slipped and nicked our captain’s finger, and then it clamped onto a chair.”

Nonetheless, Yi says, the experience was thrilling. Although she has had prior research experience and studied in Bonaire last spring, the opportunity to work with sharks was a dream come true.

“I’ve always wanted to do something with sharks,” she says. “Sharks are so fierce and misunderstood. They’re really ferocious, strong creatures and they have withstood the test of time.”

As she heads into her senior year at Brown, Yi intends to pursue graduate school and shark research, specifically movement pattern ecology. She says she is intrigued by the study of why sharks do what they do and loves the discovery process. The SURF experience has confirmed for her that she wants to conduct research and teach, achievements that Yi says are particularly meaningful to her, a young woman of color raised by a single mother.

“I think that pursuing this path has been me trying to prove to not only myself, but to everyone else, that someone like me can succeed in this field,” Yi says. “I never thought I would have the privilege to do this.”

Story and photo by Amy Dunkle