Dr David Shiffman (@whysharksmatter) is a marine biologist specializing in the ecology and conservation of sharks. He is a Liber Ero Postdoctoral Research Fellow at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver.
I am a biology professor at Allegheny College, a small liberal arts college in northwest Pennsylvania (USA). I teach a wide array of courses, including introductory biology, statistics, evolution, paleobiology (the study of fossil organisms), and research seminars. My research is focused on predator-prey relationships through evolutionary time, encompassing paleobiology and biomechanics (the application of principles from engineering and physics to biological problems). The majority of my research has been on fossil and living sharks, especially focusing on their teeth, as that is what roughly 95% of their fossil record is. I want to know why fossil shark teeth (up to 250 million years ago) are shaped the way they are, and why they are so different than modern sharks. I also study other fishes, crabs, snails, and salamanders.
My students are required to complete a senior thesis in order to graduate. Most of my students study things that are different than my research, as they are passionate about different things, but still use the techniques that I use. My students have examined the prey capture mechanics of venus flytraps, the evolution of trilobites across mass extinctions, the effects of the Endangered Species Act on the shape of wolf skulls, and the biomechanics of sports such as soccer, baseball, and long jump.
My second area of scholarship is on STEM (science, technology, engineering, and mathematics) education, from kindergarten through college. I coordinate partnerships and events between Allegheny College and my local school district to improve STEM education in my community. I am also a member of the Gills Club, an outreach group that gives girls opportunities to engage with projects focused on sharks, nature, and the environment.
My Ph.D. is in biology, with the wonderful Phil Motta at the University of South Florida. I stayed at USF, but moved up to geology for a postdoc with Greg Herbert. Before USF, I earned my M.S. in geology at Michigan State and my B.S. in geology at the University of Illinois. I grew up just outside Chicago, and even though Meadville is now home, sweet home Chicago still has part of my heart. My husband and kids (3 & 7 years old) help me maintain that whole work-life balance thing. We craft, we play outside, we build Lego, and we embrace our geekery.
You can follow me on Twitter: @WhitenackLab
My blog: https://whitenacklab.wordpress.com/
BIG PICTURE THINKING
Our vision is global, with partnerships and field programmes in most ocean basins either side of the Equator. Past and current sampling sites include: Western Australia, Palau, New Caledonia, the Chagos Archipelago, Tonga, French Polynesia, the Savage Islands (Ilhas Selvagens), The Philippines, and the Gulf of Oman.
SCIENCE THAT MATTERS
Our goal is to make a difference
Our research boasts high academic and real-life impact. It is used to directly inform and influence both policy and management actions. We are a member group of the Ocean Science Council of Australia (OSCA), an independent consortium of leading Australian experts concerned with advancing marine conservation.
Our research focuses on marine ecological questions relevant to conservation and largely explores the influence of human activities on marine ecosystems.
Key questions our research explores include:
– How do pelagic sharks and fishes respond to the establishment of large marine reserves?
– What roles do apex predators play in tropical marine ecosystems?
– How is climate variability manifested in fish growth and what does this mean for warming oceans?
– How are sharks and fishes distributed on biogeographical scales and in relation to habitat?
– What are the socioeconomic drivers of illegal fishing?
These questions are addressed using a range of techniques included BRUVS, telemetry, biomarkers and predictive modelling.
From the beginning of my research career I have attempted to capitalize on previous training as an engineer to understand the evolution of the mechanical systems of animals. At the University of California Berkeley I was a Miller Research Fellow working on the mechanics of salamander walking and the jaws of a particularly unusual group of limbless amphibians called caecilians. While at UCB I worked with Pixar Studios on the movie ‘Finding Nemo’. I spent three years advising on animal movements and biological aspects of the film and was delighted when the hard work of the Pixar folks was so well received at the box office.
In 2001 I founded the Comparative Biomechanics Laboratory at the University of California and while there he won the Bartholomew Prize for physiology research from the Society of Integrative and Comparative Biology and the UC Academic Senate prize for undergraduate teaching. In 2008 I moved to the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Laboratories in the San Juan Islands. With students and collaborators I have published more than 90 articles in scientific journals on abstruse subjects including the heads of hammerhead sharks, the properties of skeletons and the difficulties of eating hard prey. I do my best to share my enthusiasm for the field of biomechanics, for a while with a monthly column that has appeared in Natural History Magazine (2000-2008) and now with occasional writing for other popular press outlets.
My current research takes advantage of the marine lab’s easy access to fish in their natural habitat. I am trying to understand how and why some fishes are sticky, how they burrow, and the relationship between skeletal structure and function. The tools of my research include CT scanning, prototyping, CNC milling, material testing, high-speed video, sonomicrometry, SEM, and physical and mathematical model building.