Shark enthusiast reels in safety research

Photo Courtesy Christine Shepard
Photo Courtesy Christine Shepard
Photo Courtesy Christine Shepard

Doctoral student Austin Gallagher is researching new ways to protect sharks from another top predator – humans.

“Sharks are pretty cool,” Gallagher said. “They are the oldest species with a backbone on the planet, and they’ve survived mass extinctions. That’s just fascinating to me. When I grew up, I found out what was happening to them … people pose a huge threat to them.”

Gallagher is pursuing a three-year study on the effects of catching and releasing different types of sharks. He and his team of advisers observed the physiological, ecological, behavioral and social impacts of catching and releasing on hammerhead, blacktip, bull, lemon and tiger sharks.

“This research was a huge chunk of obtaining my Ph.D.,” Gallagher said. “My Ph.D. committee members pushed me, tried to help me along and challenged me. One of them works for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration (NOAA) and another is a top fish physiologist. When you have a team that resembles the Avengers, you know you’re in good company.”

He came to South Florida in 2010 to pursue his Ph.D. through the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science and Policy. He earned his bachelor’s degree in biology at Loyola University Maryland and his master’s degree in marine science at Northeastern University.

Gallagher still finds time to pursue other interests.

In 2009, he and fellow researcher Erica Staaterman founded the Beneath the Waves Film Festival, a student-and-scientist-run event that has solicited hundreds of films from all over the world. Now in its fifth year, the festival occurs several times throughout the year, with three to four large screenings, drawing 100 to 600 people, and about 15 smaller ones, drawing 20 to 100 people.

“Austin is very passionate about the work he does,” Staaterman said. “His research interests go beyond what is typical in his field. He is always pushing the boundary and asking questions that have never been asked before, and he works tirelessly to answer them.”

Gallagher expects to obtain his Ph.D. within the next year. For now, he spends his time reading and learning about all different kinds of species. He is also an award-winning wildlife photographer and filmmaker whose work has been featured in publications and festivals around the world.

“Austin has a great intellectual curiosity,” said professor Neil Hammerschlag, Gallagher’s Ph.D. adviser. “He is fascinated by the natural world and is constantly coming up with new scientific questions and teaching himself new skills to study them. It is easy to see that he is passionate about his work and dedicated to marine conservation.”

While his future plans are not set in stone, Gallagher sees himself doing more research with UM colleagues. He also foresees himself sharing his passion for his studies by becoming a professor one day.

“I stay passionate and focused because I see what a little bit of education can do,” he said. “I think everyone has an intrinsic connection to nature. The process of nature and evolution is the best story ever. And it’s still being told.”