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My recent visit to the Save Our Seas Shark Research Center

By Igbal Elhassan, 17th April 2015

I was given an incredible opportunity to travel to the Save Our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center (SOSSRC) in Florida to analyse the samples I had collected for my study. Unfortunately, though, I had to wait a year before I could go because of the complications caused by the economic sanctions on Sudan. I spent the year taking small samples of what I had collected over the past two years and two months and then, when my study leave came to an end in September 2014, I went back to work. Finally, on 10 January 2015, I made it to Florida. I thank Michael Scholl, the CEO of the Save Our Seas Foundation, and Dr Shivji, the director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute and the SOSSRC, for completing the documents required by Nova Southeastern University and the US Embassy in Khartoum in order for my visit to be approved.

The last days before I left Sudan were hectic and I slept little more than a few hours. As well as finish a report, I had to pack and organise the sub-samples. The day I left Khartoum, the city was busy. On the way to the airport my sister reminded me to drink plenty of water and walk from time to time during the flight because it is so long. When I boarded the plane I planned to sleep during the three-hour flight to Dubai, but instead I chatted to the friendly Sudanese woman next to me. After an hour’s transit in Dubai I was on the plane to New York. As it landed at John F. Kennedy Airport I commented to my Sri Lankan neighbour that it had been a smooth flight. ‘That’s because you were sleeping most of the time!’ she replied.

The next flight was to Miami, and at the arrival terminal Cassandra (Cassie) Ruck and Cristín Keelin Fitzpatrick, a young member of the Shark Research Center, were waiting for me with a welcome sign. It was lovely to meet them. Then it was a cheerful drive to Hollywood, Florida, to stay with Cristín, Camila, Bro (Camila’s rabbit) and Chasmin at their apartment. After four days with them I moved to my accommodation in Hallandale Beach. Thanks to Dr Shivji for making all the arrangements.

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Cassandra and Igbal going through the data. © Photo: Save Our Seas Foundation

Cassie, an MSc student under the supervision of Dr Shivji, is teaching me how to use genetic techniques. She is intelligent, reliable, responsible and very sincere – and always keen to be perfect in her work. In a relatively short time she has succeeded in training me in the techniques of DNA analysis and extraction, as well as polymerase chain reaction and gel electrophoresis. I can now complete all these steps on my samples. In addition to training me, Cassie is working with me on my samples. Cristín is always ready to help too, as is the friendly postdoc researcher Andrea Bernard, an unassuming expert on genetics. She is responsible for other work at the laboratory, but she doesn’t mind helping with DNA analysis or extraction. Andrea’s great sense of humour makes the long day of hard work at the lab enjoyable. I am enthusiastic about learning the steps for DNA sequencing and genetic data analysis, and Andrea and Cassie will guide me through the next steps.

Derek Burkholder and Jeremy Vaurdo, both postdocs who are tagging and tracking sharks and stingrays, helped with refilling the vials with ethanol the day my samples arrived after they had got lost at three airports en route to Florida. This was real teamwork – all the staff sharing my work with me in good spirits. I thank Dr Nadia Bruyndonckx, the executive assistant and scientific adviser at the Save Our Seas Foundation, for the huge effort she made to track down the samples and make sure they arrived safely.

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Igbal with the SOSSRC team. © Photo: Save Our Seas Foundation

Dr Shivji was concerned about the short duration of my stay and the amount of genetic analysis that needed be done for my study. He discussed a plan with his team and now Cristín is optimising primers and Andrea is testing certain microsatellite markers for her part of my study. Two young volunteer graduate students, Megan Earney and Reginald Williams, have joined the lab to help with DNA analysis and extraction. Cassie and I are continuing to work on the samples and Dr Shivji is keeping an eye on the progress of the work. I also had the pleasure of meeting Christine Testerman, a staff member at the SOSSRC, and I am sure that if she were at the lab, she too would be training me and helping me to get the lab work done.

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Igbal with Megan and Reginald. © Photo: Save Our Seas Foundation

I hope I will find the time to go on a day trip to sea with Derek and Jeremy and the school kids they teach about shark biology. Derek and Jeremy have conducted three trips since I’ve been here and they tagged and released at least four sharks per trip. I was at the laboratory one day when the kids and their teachers came back after their day at sea to hear a talk given by Derek. They were so interested in his presentation.

I also attended two seminars and a PhD defence at Nova Southeastern University Oceanographic Center. These were good opportunities to share the experiences of researchers and scientists in the developed world and to learn about new methodologies in different fields of science.

It is great to be with the wonderful team at the SOSSRC. There is always a friendly atmosphere and they are all dedicated to achieving excellent work.

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Mahmood and Igbal outside the SOSSRC. © Photo: Save Our Seas Foundation

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