February 2019: Julia Saltzman '17

Julia Saltzman ’17 has only been away from Lyman Circle for two years and already she is making her mark on the scientific community at the University of Miami. An AP Environmental Science class at Laurel, coupled with speech and debate success (she competed in the National Tournament her Senior year) sparked Julia’s desire to impact science policy. As a research and media intern for the University of Miami’s Shark Research and Conservation program, she spends her weekends tagging and collecting data on wild sharks, an essential part of the marine ecosystem. In addition to fieldwork, Julia also does photography for the lab, which helps with outreach efforts to highlight the University’s work on shark immunology, stress physiology and conservation. Read on to find out more about Julia’s marine adventures!

Would you share some of your favorite Laurel school traditions or fondest memories? 
Some of my favorite memories would have to be when my Class won Song Contest both Junior and Senior years. I remember in our last song, we were all near tears. Another favorite Laurel memory is when the entire school clapped out the speech and debate team prior to the state tournament. I think it is awesome how the Laurel community rallied around us!  
 
What do you feel is the greatest strength of an all-girls school? 
There are so many things about Laurel that are wonderful. Going to an all-girls school taught me to step out of my comfort zone. Laurel helped me learn to speak out and advocate for myself. While most of my peers here in Miami sit in the back of the lecture hall, I am not afraid to sit in the front and ask questions. Laurel helped me to find a love for STEM and cultivated a feminist spirit in me that I didn’t have prior to starting at Laurel in the Eighth Grade.  
 
What attracted you to the University of Miami (UM)? What qualities did you consider when looking at colleges? 
I applied to UM because it was appealing to go somewhere warm. I really wanted a school with a strong campus community and undergraduate research and UM has both! I visited UM after receiving an amazing financial aid package and fell in love with the campus.  
 
At Laurel, what science classes did you take? Did you enter college thinking you’d end up a science major? 
I took Honors Biology, Honors Chemistry, Honors Physics, AP Chemistry and AP Environmental Science. AP Environmental is the reason I decided to study ecosystem science and policy at UM. I wanted to go into a science field in which I could impact and promote policy change. I always was attracted to science, because it was my strongest subject, but I also loved debate and politics. When I took AP Environmental all of my passions converged. For a while, I considered going pre-med, with the ultimate goal of becoming an OBGYN and an advocate for women’s health. However, when I came to UM, I fell in love with marine science.
 
How did you become interested in your triple major of marine science, biology and ecosystem science and policy? 
 
I fell in love with fieldwork in the coastal environment in Miami and realized I wanted to pursue marine biology. I added the dual degree in marine science and biology because of the amazing resources at the Rosenstiel School of Marine and Atmospheric Science (RSMAS), which focuses on research. It is a game-changer in climate science and the catalyst for change in environmental policy. I am so happy to be surrounded by so many passionate science nerds.
 
Tell us about your research and media internship with UM’s Shark Research and Conservation program.  
 
First, I think that it is important to share the program’s mission:
Directed by Dr. Neil Hammerschlag, the Shark Research & Conservation Program (SRC) at the University of Miami conducts cutting-edge shark research while also inspiring scientific literacy and environmental ethic in youth through unique hands-on field research experiences. Click here to read the rest of our mission statement.

I work in the field with citizen scientists and perform actual shark research. I also do photography for the lab—both underwater photography, while freediving with sharks, and photography on the boat.
 
How does one collect data on sharks in the wild? What are the questions UM scientists are currently working to answer? 
 
To collect data on sharks in the wild we use custom-designed fishing units called drumlines that reduce shark capture stress and promote their well-being. Each drumline is affixed with a long fishing line, composed of a series of swivels, which allow hooked sharks to swim with 360 degrees’ range of motion. This allows the shark to continue swimming in large circles for ram ventilation (many shark species need to continuously swim to provide oxygenated water flow over their gills). If the shark is brought aboard for tagging and sampling, a water pump that pushes fresh ocean water over its gills is placed in its mouth. This allows for continued breathing and reduced stress levels.
 
From each shark, we collect a small blood sample, which can reveal a wealth of information. These samples help us assess stress levels, pregnancy hormones, immune status, energy stores and short-term dietary patterns of sharks. Similar to having your blood drawn at the doctor’s office, a sterile needle is inserted into the caudal vein of the shark to quickly collect a few milliliters of blood. Part of our workup also includes sampling a small piece of dorsal fin tissue. This doesn’t hurt the shark as its fin, mainly cartilage and protein rays, lacks the pain receptors that mammals have. Additionally, the small piece of fin tissue can regenerate. We use these fin clips as part of a larger study investigating population genetics of wild caught sharks, toxicity of their tissues and long-term dietary trends.We also make a small incision with a sterile scalpel and a specialized biopsy punch is used to collect a muscle biopsy from each shark. These samples provide information about toxin levels and nutritional condition of sharks over longer time periods. Satellite tags then are attached carefully to the dorsal fin. This attachment doesn’t hurt the shark and is designed to eventually fall off the fin. We’ve recaptured satellite tagged sharks after months at liberty and their fins are undamaged.
 
To minimize stress to the sharks, our team works like a race car pit crew to quickly tag and sample the shark before releasing it back into the ocean. We know the importance of returning the animal to the water quickly and prioritize the health of the animal over gathering all our data. We monitor the shark’s condition upon release to help gauge the efficacy of our stress-reducing efforts. Taking underwater photo and video allows for later scientific review. We make sure each shark swims off healthy and strong, even if that means spending time in the water to monitor the shark through videos and photos.
 
We currently are working on projects in shark immunology, stress physiology, conservation, marine megafauna movement patterns, and of my personal favorites, we are looking at shark nurseries through the use of birth tags in Tiger Beach.
 
I encourage you to learn more by checking us out on social media and online at sharktagging.com.
 
Most people will have a vision of sharks based on the media. What do you wish more people knew about sharks and their role as apex predators in the marine ecosystem? And, are you ever afraid?  
 
I have never been afraid because our team is so experienced. I wish that people all had the chance to experience shark research and understand that sharks are crucial for the marine ecosystem. In general, I think it is especially important for everyone to have a better understanding of just how important the marine ecosystem is! That is why I think that outreach, especially via social media is so important.  
 
Are you involved with any other student groups?  
Yes! I am involved in UM Hillel, Scuba Club, NOW (National Organization of Women), Campus Democrats and a lot more!
 
 Do you have any advice for current Laurel students? Is there one thing you’d recommend they do before graduation?  
I used to think the only route to go in science was to become a doctor or engineer. However, now I know that there are so many other opportunities. I want to pursue a master’s degree and eventually a Ph.D. studying sharks and behavioral ecology. I wish that I had understood more about this!
 
I would tell all Laurel girls to take a moment to reflect. Sometimes, school seems hard. I know exactly how you feel. But take a minute away from stressing about AP exams and college applications to breathe and think about what an awesome community Laurel is. I wish that my time there had not gone by so fast because I won’t ever again be in an environment surrounded by so many strong and supportive women, with so many interests. I would also say to thank your teachers for all they do. I miss my Laurel teachers who cared about me as a person and a student; it can be hard to find that in college. At Laurel, everyone is so supportive, so take that in, meet with your teachers and always ask them for help.
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