Meet Biologist Dr. Lauren Eve Simonitis
Lauren is a Cuban-American aquatic sensory biologist born and raised in Miami, FL, USA. She grew up around, on, and in the water. She has dual bachelors of science degrees in marine science and biology from the University of Miami’s Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science and a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University. As an aquatic sensory biologist, she focuses both on how animals sense their environment and how they interact with the senses of other animals. For her dissertation, she focused on how sharks use their sense of smell and how prey species can weaponize chemicals to attack this sense. Currently, she a postdoctoral scholar at University of Washington’s Friday Harbor labs where she continues to study how shark noses work. Lauren loves spending time out in nature in hiking, SCUBA diving, paddle boarding, and biking but also loves musical theater and a good board game.
Learn more about Lauren on her WEBSITE or follow her work and ocean adventures on
1. What is your favorite elasmobranch and why?
My favorite elasmobranch is the bonnethead shark! I spent a lot of quality time with these little shovel heads for 6 years in my PhD. They are beautiful and speckled with a very bizarre head shape. Plus- they have giant noses which are super easy for me to look at and study. I wouldn’t be where I am today without them!
2. What is one shark you would like to dive with or study?
I would love to study any deep sea shark but if I had to pick one- the lollipop catshark! We know so little about them and they have such weird head and body shapes that I have so many questions! They look like a little tadpole and I would love to take a look at their sensory systems.
3. What is the coolest/most interesting thing you've seen while studying sharks/rays?
One of the coolest things I’m working on now is imaging the sensory structures in their heads with computerized tomography (CT) scanning. Basically, we take a bunch of x-rays which are stacked together for a 3D image! Normally, we can only see hard parts but I’ve been putting shark heads in special dyes which let’s me see their soft sensory structure like their noses or ampullae of Lorenzini (electrical sensing organs). It’s something really fun and new that I’m working on and I can’t wait to share the images I make.
CT Scan of the head of a spiny dogfish
4. Can you tell us a little about your research? What does a typical day in the field/lab look like?
I am an aquatic sensory biologist which means I’m interested in how animals use their senses to interact with their underwater environment. Specifically, I look at how sharks use their sense of smell. I look at what their nose looks like (anatomy) and how it works (physiology). I also look at how potential prey species can use chemical defenses to attack a shark’s sense of smell. A great example of a chemical defense is a skunk- they spray a nasty smelling chemical cocktail at their predators so they no longer want to eat them.
I currently live and work at the University of Washington’s Friday Harbor Labs in Friday Harbor, Washington which is in the San Juan Islands. I normally wake up, and walk a couple minutes down a hill to my lab where I have so many samples, animals, and machines at my fingertips! I can put a shark head in a CT scanner, look at shark noses under different microscopes, and even set up some experiments with live dogfish sharks in our tanks. These are the really fun days though- sometimes I will spend the whole day at my computer sending e-mails, writing papers and grant proposals, making models, or doing math. Each day is different which is what makes my job so fun.
5. What is the most challenging thing about studying sharks ( or your current research project)?
I’m really interested in *comparative* anatomy and physiology of shark noses which means comparing how different sharks with different noses look and work. It’s relatively easy for me to study the common sharks we can find and access in our local waters. It’s much harder to study the more out of reach sharks- the big open ocean sharks, the deep sea sharks, the sharks in polar regions, etc. It’s so frustrating to have all of these questions and tools but not have access to the sharks we still know very little about!
Dr. Lauren Eve Simonitis with a juvenile scalloped hammerhead
6. What is one thing you wish everyone knew about sharks?
I wish everyone knew that sharks are able to ignore blood- they don’t always go into a frenzy! During my Ph.D. working on bonnetheads, I did behavioral experiments where I would have sharks swimming freely in a tank. I was testing how sharks reacted to chemical deterrents. As sharks would swim by, I would shoot 1 of 3 things into the tank: 1) a chemical deterrent; 2) plain seawater (to get a baseline); or 3) fish blood. Sometimes when my sharks would smell the fish blood, they would turn around and try to bite the tube it came out of! But sometimes, they would swim on by unbothered. It’s kind of like when you’re not hungry but you pass a restaurant- it may smell very good and tasty but if you’re not hungry, you’re not going to go in and eat. Sharks are the same way!
7. What is one piece of advice you would give students who want to pursue a career in marine biology?
Start asking questions! It may seem like we know a lot about sharks and the ocean in general but there are still so many things we don’t know. There is room for everyone in this field and there are so many adventures to go on and topics to study. Once you start exploring the marine environment and looking for the answers to your questions, you’ll find scientist with the same questions who you can connect with and possibly work with. Also, joining organizations like Minorities in Shark Science (MISS) is a great place to ask your questions and get connected with shark scientists that share not only your passion but also your cultural background and identity.