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She saw a scary shark movie as a little girl — now she studies sharks up close

She saw a scary shark movie as a little girl — now she studies sharks up close

October 28, 2020 at 2:33pm

By Catherine Guinovart
Angela Nicoletti and Christine Calvo contributed to this story. 

Deep Blue Sea may not be the most well-known horror film about sharks. But, it’s still pretty iconic. (Spoiler alert: Samuel L. Jackson gets devoured by a shark while delivering a speech about teamwork and unity!)

Instead of developing a shark phobia after watching this movie as a child, Laura Garcia Barcia was fascinated by the on-screen scientists.

Today, Garcia Barcia is a Ph.D. candidate in FIU’s Predator Ecology and Conservation Lab. She’s not trying to create more intelligent mutant sharks in a search for the cure to Alzheimer’s Disease like in Deep Blue Sea. But, under the guidance of FIU marine scientist Demian Chapman, she’s examining the levels of toxic chemicals, like mercury, found in sharks and other large marine animals like whales or giant squid.

Garcia Barcia grew up in Castellar del Vallès in Spain. Forests covered her small village, which was about one hour away from the coastline of Barcelona. 

It was a visit to the L’Oceanographic in Valencia — the largest aquarium in Europe — that brought the ocean to her. She saw animals she’d never seen before. Seahorses. Beluga whales. Shark species only found all over the world. She was captivated. And this is where her love for marine animals truly began.

Garcia Barcia came to FIU as an undergraduate study abroad student from the Autonomous University of Barcelona. She took several marine biology electives that were not offered back home. She worked in the Heithaus Lab surveying bull sharks in the Everglades, as well as studying the foraging ecology of green sea turtles in the Caribbean. By her senior year, she was hooked.

These experiences made her realize what she perhaps knew all along — she wanted to be a scientist and spend her life studying large marine predators.  Instead of returning home to Spain, Garcia Barcia decided to stay and pursue her Ph.D. at FIU.

Garcia Barcia has already conducted groundbreaking research. Working with Chapman and a collaborative team of researchers from the United States and Hong Kong, she recently published a study that found dangerously high levels of toxic mercury in shark fins sold in Asian markets.

The Hong Kong Center for Food Safety has been made aware of the study and are working to enhance surveillance of fins on the market. Garcia Barcia also plans to use the findings to launch educational campaigns in Hong Kong and China to drive down demand for shark fins.

These days, Garcia Barcia spends most of her time in the lab.

If she’s running samples, she will work 10 to 12-hour days. When she’s not in the lab, she’s writing grants and proposals. Despite her busy schedule, she makes time for what she loves. And that’s mentoring students.

To date, she’s worked with three FIU undergraduate students — Juana Argiró, Yaniela Lorenzo and Tatyana Brewer-Tinsley.

 “I think FIU is just a great place to boost representation of underrepresented groups in science simply because of the diverse student group we have,” Garcia Barcia said. “I do everything I can to help them find opportunities, grants and scholarships, and also meet with them regularly to discuss their career goals.”

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FIU is ranked No. 9 in the world for positive impact on life below water by The Times Higher Education Impact Rankings. The university ranked third in the United States and is the only institution in the state of Florida to make the list. Research in this area is spearheaded by the College of Arts, Sciences & Education through its Institute of Environment, which is leading projects and programs that support and safeguard the survival of key ecosystems and marine species.