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Ph.D. student couldn’t decide between shark researcher and writer, so she chose both

Ph.D. student couldn’t decide between shark researcher and writer, so she chose both

December 6, 2021 at 10:51am

Erin Spencer brings the beauty and wonder of the underwater world closer to others, inspiring the sort of awe that can spark a deep care and desire to protect the world’s oceans.

The marine ecologist and Ph.D. candidate in the Institute of Environment has spent hundreds of hours on the water and underwater. A certified diver by 16, she’s visited coral reefs all over the world. Today, she studies the movement and behavior of critically endangered great hammerhead sharks. When she’s not on the water, though, she’s writing about the ocean or doing community outreach work, like visiting elementary classrooms, to speak about her research.

Spencer started writing about science as an undergraduate student at William & Mary. She kept up a blog, and later a personal website, where she wrote about everything from her research on lionfish in the Florida Keys as a National Geographic Young Explorer to the overall problem of invasive species in different ecosystems.

Writing became a necessity, a therapeutic exercise that allowed her to process and think more deeply about her work. At the same time, it was a way to share her work with others. But she got a point where she felt she needed to choose a career path — science or communications.

William & Mary Professor Anne Marie Stock had the answer. It came in the form of a question — two questions, actually. “Who says you have to choose? Who says can’t do both?”

The advice still resonates with Spencer today. It’s something she thinks about a lot.

“Communicating what I’m working on helps me better understand what I’m doing with the research, and why I’m doing it,” Spencer said. “The why is a big and important question — because scientists have to be able to explain why we’re doing specific research and its importance to other people.”

After graduating with a degree in ecology, Spencer moved to Washington, D.C. and worked in digital media for National Geographic’s travel department, as well as for the nonprofit Ocean Conservancy. Then, got accepted into a master’s program at University of North Carolina — Chapel Hill.

There, she examined seafood mislabeling and red snapper management. Using genetic testing, she found more than 70 percent of red snappers sold in grocery stores, seafood markets, and sushi restaurants were incorrectly labeled. Ready to pursue a career in fisheries management, Spencer took a quick detour to work on a project in the Galapagos studying how sea urchins tolerate temperature changes. Spencer realized she wasn’t finished with field research.

To figure out what research she wanted to do, she started sifting through marine science articles in academic journals. Each one was sorted into a folder labeled ‘very interesting,’ ‘somewhat interesting’ or ‘not at all interesting.’

The ‘very interesting’ folder was soon filled with articles about land and marine predators.

Coincidentally, Spencer happened to meet an FIU predator ecologist on the Galapagos trip — FIU’s Yannis Papastamatiou. Today, he is her Ph.D. advisor in the Predator Ecology and Conservation lab.

Before FIU, Spencer never worked on anything bigger than, well, a red snapper. Now, she handles massive great hammerhead sharks, attaching special tags, called biologgers, to their dorsal fins that help collect data on movement and acceleration. Every little bit of information offers better understanding of this critically endangered species.

“Working with a shark is something I don’t take lightly, because I respect these animals so much. Collecting data means you’re asking something from them and it’s your responsibility to make sure you’re doing everything safely for the animal — and the entire team,” Spencer said. “I am fortunate to have received so much support from everyone in the lab. Handling sharks is really something I got comfortable with and learned everything about by learning from other graduate students.”

Spencer would one day like to work for a government organization or nonprofit, uniting her love for science and communication. In the meantime, she’s focused on her Ph.D.

And, of course, writing.

In fact, Spencer’s writing is set to reach a new milestone. In March 2022, her first children’s book, The World of Coral Reefs: Explore and Protect the Natural Wonders of the Sea, will be released.  

“If you had asked me five years ago if I would be studying great hammerheads and publishing a children’s book, I wouldn’t know what to say,” Spencer said. “I’ve just tried to keep my path open and pursue areas I feel I can contribute, and hopefully further the mission to protect our world’s oceans.”