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  • Writer's pictureSharks4Kids

Meet Sharks4Kids Regional Ambassador Leann Winn

I ( Jillian) met Leann on the Bimini Biological Field Station’s ( Sharklab) Marquesas research and tagging expedition in 2004. Leann is based in New Jersey, where she is currently a science teacher for grades 6-12. She is a research assistant in the Fluid Dynamics Lab at NJIT, where she is studying Chondrichthyan egg cases. Leann will be representing our team throughout the tri-state area (NY-NJ-PA) with classroom visits and educational events. She will also be developing curriculum and other educational activities as well as attending educational conferences and seminars.

Leann taking a blood sample with the University of Miami shark tagging program

1. What is your favorite shark and why?

By far, my favorite has to be hammerhead sharks! Regardless of whether it be the scalloped, great, or any other species; I am captivated by them all. How could you not be fascinated by a shark that uses its wide head to trap stingrays by pinning them to the seafloor, is able to scan across a large area at a faster rate compared to other sharks because of their eye placement, and has a very distinctive dorsal fin.

The first time I encountered a hammerhead was during an expedition to Cocos Island. The schooling of hundreds of scalloped hammerheads remains a vivid picture in my mind to this day. Over the years, I have encountered multiple species. However, the hammerheads remain at the top of my list because of new findings such as the 2013 classification of the Carolina hammerhead (Sphyrna gilberti) and the 2007 evidence of reproduction without fertilization within bonnethead sharks.

2. What is one species of shark you would like to see in the wild?

I would like to see a lantern shark (Family Etmopteridae). I will likely not encounter this shark on a dive or expedition unless I had the capability of reaching deep waters below 200 meters. Sunlight does not penetrate such depths and it is virtually pitch black. But, these sharks glow in the dark! Their ventral (under) side is covered with photophores, which are tiny organs that emit light. This is a form of counter-shading, which helps the shark camouflage with any light that shines down from above. In addition, the velvet belly lantern shark (Etmopterus spinax) has glowing spines on its dorsal (top) side, which look like lightsabers and are thought to deter predators.

3. What made you want to become a marine biologist? A teacher?

I have always pondered the unknown in general. In particular, I was fascinated by animal behavior; always asking why animals acted and moved in the manners that they do. I had been a swimmer since a very young age and had always felt more at home in the water; so I decided to venture into the realm of Marine Science. I believe that there is a method to the madness in nature and numbers have always brought a smile to my face. Hence, I was driven to engage in scientific research.

My passion to engage and educate those outside of my field came from attempts to integrate my schooling with family and friends. My aim while teaching is to have my audience begin to consider that their actions matter and everyone can make a difference. I am dedicated to science and advancing the integration of research and education. It gives me purpose educating those in hopes of them becoming citizens of environmental action and conducting research to discover that which is unknown.

4. Can you tell us a little about your work with sharks?

My first encounter took place during my studies at Coastal Carolina University; I worked on a shark nurseries project. I have engaged with the Shark Research Institute while monitoring and evaluating the population dynamics of sharks. I participated in the annual lemon shark (Negaprion brevirostris) census at the Bimini Biological Field Station (BBFS). Additionally, I was involved in outreach opportunities through hands-on research targeting coastal shark species with the South Florida Student Shark Program and the RJ Dunlap Marine Conservation Program.

Presently, I am working in the Fluid Dynamics Laboratory at New Jersey Institute of Technology, under the advisement of Dr. Brooke Flammang. I hope to unravel phenomena surrounding hydrodynamic factors influencing embryonic ventilation within and around Chondrichthyan egg cases. In other words, I hope to understand how baby sharks and chimaera survive in egg cases and use this information to ensure their survival against human based environmental changes.

Leann ready to release a tagged spiny dogfish.

5. What has been one your favorite shark experiences?

Besides that of the hammerheads as previously described, one of my most favorite shark experiences was during my time at the BBFS. During PIT, after completion of a juvenile lemon shark work up, the sharks recover in a holding pen before being released. It was my turn to remain in the pen, to ensure the safety and condition of the sharks. While in the pen, I would have to place some on a cinder block; relocating them above the muck on the seafloor. Some would start spinning and at times go on their back; I had to ensure they did not go into tonic immobility and just sink. If any were not moving at a healthy rate, I would have to help them swim. I know this may appear to be a negative experience, but it was a surreal moment. It emphasized the purpose of what I was doing. I took this experience with me and it drove (and still drives) me to educate others regarding anthropogenic (human) effects on the marine environment.

6. Why is it important to get kids in the field to see animals and their environment?

Studies have shown that if individuals are given regular contact with nature as children, it will have a positive effect on their well-being as adults. Getting kids in the field to see animals and their environment provides an opportunity to make connections with the real thing enabling them to develop ethics. Granted, at times, people tend to personify, but is that necessarily a bad thing? If it helps kids to think of animals as not simply lesser beings, but as having just as much right to live a healthy life just as humans hope to, then it is a good thing in my opinion. I practice experiential education and even though the classroom and laboratory allow students to apply their knowledge and conceptual understanding to real-world problems or situations, I have experienced that providing opportunities in the field offers the ability to leave no room for the separation from an individual’s life. Moreover, such experiences initiate self reflection and possibly create environmentally responsible behaviors. In addition, having been directly engaged with a species in its environment, I have found, is not forgotten easily.

7. Why do you think shark education is important?

I honestly cannot say that shark education is more important than education pertaining to rhinos or trees, for example. I think being well-rounded is a good thing and I would never tell anyone to dismiss an opportunity to study something unfamiliar. Sharks are one of many groups of animals that are threatened by multiple factors; many being human related. However, since they are not cute and cuddly and have been depicted as man-eaters; they still have a long way to go before people’s perception changes. With that being said, shark education has to be made available for all ages and individuals in all walks of life around the word. If, at any time, someone poses a question or has the desire to learn more, resources need to be available. In addition, with interest comes curiosity; it could influence individuals to ask questions and conduct research. Furthermore, shark education is crucial; because knowledge brings the possibility of awareness, which in turn could create the realization for a change. Although sharks have been around since before humans; I would rather not chance the future of sharks on an educated public.

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