A young woman sitting on a dock by the ocean

Last fall, I read an article in the Miami Herald about an annual event with the catchy title Drag n’ Tag. “It may be Miami’s fiercest fundraiser,” wrote reporter Alex Harris: It “combines flashy acts from local drag queens with a day on Biscayne Bay with some of Miami’s top shark scientists,” capturing, tagging and releasing sharks. As it raises money for Pridelines, an organization that supports queer youth in South Florida, the event visibly challenges and expands conventional notions of who belongs in marine science. One of its founders, performers and shark taggers, for instance, is Miss Toto, a bodybuilding Black queen who holds a master’s degree in aquaculture.

The article also shined a spotlight on the work of Catherine Macdonald ’07E, director of the University of Miami’s Shark Research & Conservation Program and co-founder and director of Field School. Apart from hosting Drag n’ Tag since 2021, Field School runs educational programs for students (ranging in age from 18 to over 60) who want hands-on experience in studying sharks, whales and tropical ocean life.

In reading about this, I was at first puzzled. Was this the same Catherine Macdonald I had seen play the lead role in a production of Proof at Amherst, in fulfillment of her theater and dance major? The one who also majored in history, earning summa honors for her senior thesis on “Community and Persistence of Mortuary and Funerary Practices in the Connecticut River Valley, 1650–1850”?

What was she doing working with sharks now?

It turns out she’s been doing a lot. Notably, in 2018, she and her Miami team caught a baby great hammerhead in Biscayne Bay, which led them to discover the East Coast’s first known nursery for the critically endangered species. They (along with colleagues at other institutions) published their findings in Conservation Science and Practice in 2021. The same year, Macdonald received a National Geographic Explorer grant and a Mentor of the Year award from students at her university. The New York Times, the BBC, Good Morning America and the Story Collider podcast are just a few of the media outlets that have featured her work.

Amid a boatload of scholarly publications, Macdonald has also written about “The Dark Side of Being a Female Shark Researcher.” Her August 2020 opinion piece in Scientific American presents statistics and personal accounts to shed light on gender discrimination and racism in shark science, an area dominated by white men. Mistreatment of women in the field, she writes, ranges from underrepresentation in the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week programming, to unwelcome comments about physical appearance, to voyeurism and assault. It seems the hammerheads and dogfish are not the only predators these scientists have to look out for. In response, a key part of the mission of Field School, says its website, is “to create a space that is safe and welcoming for everyone,” including students of color and LGBTQIA students.

I caught up with Macdonald over Zoom in October, to talk with her about the fellowship that changed her professional path, the underwater underdogs she studies and the young scientists she mentors. She greeted me on a cloudy afternoon from aboard Field School’s repurposed yacht—the same one on which Drag n’ Tag had taken place.

We might as well start with you telling me about this boat that you’re on.

This is Research Vessel Garvin. We’re up in the pilot house right now. We’ve got our captain behind us—hi, Christian!—and the whole team out on deck, getting ready to start setting gear. She’s a 55-foot live-aboard research vessel. We bought her in 2015, but she was a little bit derelict at the time. That might be too strong—she was ready for some love and care at that time. So she’s been operating since 2016.

Now let’s go all the way back. You went to high school in Highland Park, N.J. Then, did you start at a different college before transferring to Amherst?

Yeah, I was a transfer from Smith. I had a great experience at Smith, but I got really interested in early American history, and [now Professor Emeritus of American Studies and History] Kevin Sweeney’s work really excited me, and the theater department at Amherst excited me, and so I made the transfer as a sophomore.

You graduated summa cum laude, with majors in theater and dance and history. But after graduation you applied for a Watson Fellowship to study sharks. What inspired that?

My undergrad thesis looked at gravestones in the Connecticut River Valley, so I applied for a Fulbright to go study historic funerary and grave-marking practices in Jamaica, and I applied for a Watson Fellowship to work on sharks. The fellowship committee really loved the gravestone work, and they didn’t totally get the shark thing. Which was fair, because it was literally just that my dad asked, “What would you want to do right now if you could do anything?” and I was like, “Sharks.” But [Denise Gagnon,] the head of the fellowship office at the time, said, “The Watson folks are looking for something that’s kind of out of left field.” So my applications went in, and I ended up winning a Watson Fellowship.

But where did the shark idea come from? What was it about the idea of studying sharks that was exciting to you?

I was a little kid who was very temperamentally on the side of the underdog, and so I always really felt for sharks. The story that I tell about this is: I was visiting my great-grandparents in South Carolina, and while I was on the beach, swimming with my cousins, somebody caught a bonnethead in the surf. And bonnetheads are small. But the adults all got very upset that the shark had been in the water with kids.

I remember walking up to this gathering of adults, and this sad little shark kind of gasping on the sand, and being like, “If somebody’s in danger here, I don’t think it’s me. I don’t think it’s the rest of us kids. I think it’s this thing that’s in trouble.” From there, I always had this soft spot for sharks.

I honestly intended, when I won the Watson, that it was just going to be an adventurous year before I thought about what my real future looked like. But, years later, talking to the executive director of the Watson Foundation, they were like, “We think about what we do as knocking people off the ladder, and they think about what they might be if they weren’t what they are.” It definitely had that effect for me.

A shark swimming in an ocean with a city on the horizon in the distance

A nurse shark swims away from the research vessel, with Key Biscayne and the City and Port of Miami in the background. Shark Research and Conservation Program / Nola Schoder

What was that year like for you? You went to South Africa, Australia and the Bahamas?

And Mozambique. It was a real eye-opener. Certainly, it’s very hard to see how conservation is enacted in places around the world, and talk to people and care about them, without starting to see some of the cracks in the neoliberal system. It definitely made me a more nuanced thinker about conservation problems and what solutions look like.

Almost every first-year grad student in my field thinks the solution to conservation is, on some level, simple, like, “If we see populations declining, then we need to fish that less.” Well, OK, but who’s depending on fishing it? What does it mean for them if we stop fishing it? If we change the regulations on this particular fish species, what does that mean for other fish species? Because people are not going to starve—they’re going to shift their effort, or they’re going to fish illegally.

After the Watson year, you went on to get a Ph.D. from the Abess Center for Ecosystem Science & Policy at the University of Miami.

I did a couple years of non-academic work before I went back. I worked for a year at a wild bird rescue. I worked for two seasons on a dolphin tourism boat in the Bahamas, where I learned to free dive and to do a lot of the related work that I do now. I was ready for whatever was next, but I wasn’t sure what that was.

I applied to grad programs in early American history and marine science, and I got into both. I know a lot of people who say that they can only be happy doing the thing they’re most passionate about, but there are so many things I’m passionate about. I think I would be a very happy early American historian. But, as I was grappling with that choice, my dad turned to me and said, “What’s the difference you want to make in the world?”

I love gravestones, always will. Love early American history, always will. I bring the ways of thinking and the ways of building ideas that I learned in history class at Amherst into the science that I do. But the thing that felt most urgent to me was the biodiversity crisis that we’re experiencing.

“Conservation problems are people problems at their heart.”

You have written that your Ph.D. program was where you discovered that teaching and mentoring were what you loved most. What is it about teaching and mentoring that you love?

It never gets old, seeing through students’ eyes. It’s rare, when I teach a week-long class in the field, for there not to be at least one student who says some version of, “This is the best week of my life.” Getting to support their learning through that is really rewarding.

But, more than that, I think that the combination of my graduate school education, my undergraduate education and my Watson Fellowship taught me that conservation problems are people problems at their heart. The problem is not that sharks don’t know how to be sharks, but that we’re changing the rules of the game on them faster than they can keep up. The research means a lot to me, and it’s important to do well. But the thing that’s going to have the biggest effect on the world is the way that students that I’ve trained move through it.

I’d like to know more about the founding of Field School. When did that happen, and how did you go about it?

We realized that lots of students want to learn how to do this kind of work, but that there are very few safe, structured opportunities. There are a lot of pay-to-play internships, where nonprofits charge room and board to volunteers. But, in some cases at least, even when those experiences are really fun, they don’t actually build that many skills. Trying to offer something that’s structured and designed to help students learn was an important priority for us.

We started the school in 2015. My partners are Julia Wester, who was in my Ph.D. cohort at the University of Miami; Christian Pankow, whom I met in the Bahamas during my Watson Fellowship; and Jake Jerome and Nick Perni, who both started as my interns at the university. It’s the most terrifying thing I’ve ever done. We put all of our savings, everything we have in the world on the line to do this. It felt a little bit like holding hands with all your friends and jumping off the cliff together.

You talk and write a lot about your efforts to recruit and support populations that have been underrepresented in science generally, and shark science in particular. And you’re involved with Drag n’ Tag, Minorities in Shark Sciences (MISS) and Building a Better Fieldwork Future. What would you say this kind of recruitment and support involves?

I think some of it is just having someone else who’s willing to stand up for you, and that can make a big difference. You probably read the Scientific American piece from 2020? In the week after that piece came out, I got literally hundreds of emails from women who’d had traumatic experiences, and they just wanted someone to listen and care. I did answer them all.

Creating spaces where people know that they are welcome and valued and belong is the most powerful tool I know of to create scientists who understand that it’s not just about the data that you collect, but the way you collect it, right? I don’t think you can do good science in an exploitive way. I don’t think you can do good science while mistreating your research assistants.

Do you have any thoughts about why it’s important, not just for the scientists themselves, but for the field to be more diverse? Are there ways in which better questions will be asked and better findings will come out of it?

My friends at MISS have a really nice soundbite (that I won’t take credit for) about how diversity leads to diversity of viewpoints, diversity of thought, and that improves the quality of science. And I buy that, but I also don’t think that’s the right standard to hold things to. If you are creating a situation in which really elite science is being done, but only by a very specific group of people and there’s no room for anybody else, then you’re being a crappy, exclusionary person. And that’s reason enough to not do that. I don’t think diverse scientists or diverse viewpoints have to improve science to deserve to be there. It’s our responsibility to create a place where a diversity of young scientists feel happy and welcome and included, more than it’s their responsibility to carve out space for themselves.

Can you tell me more about Drag n’ Tag? How did the event get started?

Drag n’ Tag was created by Miss Toto and Jake Jerome, with support from the rest of us. The funding it generates goes to support trans youth at risk of losing access to housing, and we’ve been so grateful for the support for the event from the local drag community. Rock (Miss Toto) was an intern with the Shark Research & Conservation Program when I was a graduate student and the program’s intern coordinator, so we’ve known each other quite a while. It is always an incredibly fun and rewarding experience to be part of, one of the best days of the year. It’s also clear that the event is meaningful to people, including my own students who are part of the LGBTQIA community. We’re looking forward to Drag n’ Tag 2024 in September!

Tell me about your research in South Florida and the Southern Caribbean.

We’re out here looking for juvenile great hammerheads right now, although we’ll be lucky if we see them. I feel really lucky to do a lot of different research. But here in South Florida it’s mainly focused on the biology and ecology of sharks.

One of my master’s students who just graduated, Kathy Liu, studied cephalofoil morphology in bonnethead sharks—the cephalofoil is the little hammer. For great hammerheads it’s really big, but for bonnets it’s just this little hat on the front.

Bonnetheads are the only shark that we know has a sexually dimorphic head shape. The males have a more pronounced point at the front of their cephalofoil compared to the females. The previous hypothesis explaining this was that maybe it was a secondary sex characteristic: As males hit maturity, their claspers calcify—their sperm delivery organs—and their head gets pointier. But her research suggests that it’s probably actually the opposite, that everybody gets blunter as they age, but males less than females. Our best guess is that it may have to do with swimming efficiency, because the males are also smaller than the females, and they have less in the way of muscles. The females have to tote around all those pups as they develop in utero.

A hand holding a long, flat fish with small spots over its skin

Macdonald’s team is conducting several collaborative studies on the Atlantic guitarfish, a small benthic ray. Shark Research and Conservation Program / Nicole Bozkurt

What are your other projects?

One of my other master’s students, Chris Will, who finished last December and is currently completing a research assistantship with me, studied juvenile nurse sharks recovering from the stress of being captured. His results suggest it’s going to take eight to 10 hours for an animal to fully physiologically recover from a 30-second capture. We may be underestimating the stress risks for some species and overestimating them for others.

I’m interested in nursery habitats in particular, but also in reproductively important habitats: places where animals are mating or gestating. We have a bunch of exciting stuff on that front. I have a master’s student, Kathryn Miller, who works with ultrasound and plasma hormones to look at mating and pregnancy and reproductive cycles in some of our shark species.

I have a bunch of students working on the Atlantic guitarfish. It’s just this silly little shovel-faced ray that there’s only two published scientific papers on. We know very little about them. So one student is studying their movement, and another is studying their diet.

I have students working on parasite projects—both external parasites that we find on sharks and internal parasites. One of my Ph.D. students, John Hlavin, is focused mainly on feeding ecology. Emily Yeager is focused on symbiosis: how organisms interact with each other.

I watched the video on your website about the nursery for great hammerheads, and it showed you capturing the sharks, and then doing something to them and letting them go. What is it that you’re doing?

For juvenile great hammerheads specifically, we’re using a tool called acoustic tagging. Actually I’m well prepared here, because this is an acoustic tag. [She shows me a small cylindrical object that looks a bit like a battery.] There’s a little magnet on it. That magnet comes off when we’re deploying it, and you cut a tiny hole in the body cavity of a shark, right around where we would describe as our abdomen, and this just pops into the empty space, and it gets two stitches to close it up and gets sent on its way. These tags communicate with receivers on the bottom of the ocean. Every time this tag passes within detection range, it records the tag’s unique ID number and says, “This shark was near here at this time.” We’re using this to look at how they use habitat. As they grow, how do they expand their range, and where are we seeing them?

Each shark's unique Id tag “means that if we ever recapture them, we know who they are.”

I haven’t historically been well-funded enough to throw around a lot of satellite tags, which are better if you’re trying to study big ocean-going sharks. But in a coastal environment like ours, that’s semi-enclosed, where we have decent receiver coverage, acoustic tags are a great way to collect that data.

You can also engage in “mark recapture,” which is a little plastic dart ID tag, and every one of our sharks gets one of those too. That unique ID number means that if we ever recapture them, we know who they are and when we last tagged them, and we can connect their new samples to their old samples. In fact, that was one of the crucial events that solidified that nursery area paper for us: recapturing one of those individuals and being able to say, “This animal is staying in the same area over an extended period, because we caught it at this site five months ago.”

Do you use acoustic tagging on other animals besides those hammerheads?

Yeah. We have a similar project on juvenile and sub-adult bull sharks. I’m interested in understanding better whether the expansion of nursery habitat as they grow is something that happens at similar sizes, or pretty consistently across multiple species, or whether it’s species-specific. The 540-ish species of shark worldwide are very diverse in their reproductive modes, in their feeding strategies, and so it’s often hard to extrapolate from one to all.

I want to ask you a little bit about your life outside of this work.

I still enjoy reading fiction, and I make a point of making time for it. That’s something I’ve learned at least in part at Amherst: If you let your academic work be all of the reading and all of the “life of the mind” that you have, it gets limiting. And I am fortunate to still make it home to see my dad at least a few times a year. But I teach at the university level. I do research. I’m in the field, this year, well over 100 days. So this has sometimes meant a lack of optimal balance.

But it’s a wonderful problem to have, to care so much about the things that I’m doing.

Photographs by Jeffery Salter