Biology professor participates in shark symposium

The Gills Club supports women in science, shark conservation

What do you want to be when you grow up? It is a question that plagues people from children to college students and those well into their careers.

The Gills Club is a national club with the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy. It helps young girls with a passion for sharks by giving them the opportunity to participate in projects that make a significant impact on sharks and how they are perceived by the public. Allegheny College’s Lisa Whitenack, associate professor of biology, was one of 10 female shark scientists to participate in the “Shark Tales: Women Making Waves” symposium at Boston’s New England Aquarium in September.

Whitenack said she is proud to have been able to speak at the event.

“You turn on your TV during Shark Week [and] it is inevitably a guy who is the shark expert, but if you look at the American Elasmobranch Society, which is the professional scientific society for folks who study sharks, [and] work on shark conservation, it is more than 50 percent women,” Whitenack said.

The goal of the Gills Club is to show young girls they can love sharks and they can work with sharks, according to Whitenack. The Gills Club shows that sharks are not only for boys by showcasing advancements made by female scientists.

The Gills Club reached out to Whitenack to speak at the “Women Making Waves” symposium. The symposium featured 10 female shark scientists who participated in a Q&A session.     

The symposium had upwards of 10,000 viewers both online and in person, according to Whitenack.

The Gills Club worked with local schools dissecting sharks with students.

Whitenack said she fell in love with sharks at a young age.

“My grandmother had one of these Reader’s Digest volumes, it was Wildlife of North America … I remember looking at that book so much that the shark pages are really worn,” Whitenack said.

Not all the scientists at the symposium fell in love with sharks as easily as Whitenack. Heather Marshall, a specialist in shark physiology and Gills Club science team member, did not always love sharks.

“My interest came from a place of fear, when I was a young girl,” Marshall said in a video posted to the Gills Club website. “I heard about the movie Jaws and developed this fear of sharks. So, I decided to learn about ways to avoid shark attacks … I developed this fascination, which lead to more fascination,”

Michelle Heupel, another scientist featured by the Gills Club, addressed her decision to go into marine biology.

‘It doesn’t matter where you come from, you can be who or what you want no matter what your starting point,” Heupel said in another video posted to the club’s website. “All you have to do is apply yourself and go for it.”

The scientists of the Gills Club all have unique journeys to how they fell in love with sharks and how they became leading scientists in their fields. Whitenack was not on track to being a shark paleontologist while in her undergraduate studies. She took a history of life class to fulfill a biology general education requirement.

“I hated biology,” said Whitenack. Whitenack decided to pursue her lifelong love for fossils and geology.

Whitenack is happy to have been approached by the Gills Club. She believes in the importance of role models in science.

“I don’t think it is a women thing, I think it is anyone who is interested should do it,” Whitenack said. “If you love it you should do it, it doesn’t matter what your gender is or your sex is.”

Lisa Whitenack
Professor of Biology Lisa Whitenack holds a T-Rex jaw.