Stephen Cain

Ana Zangroniz
Stephen Cain
Track: Coastal Zone Management
Graduated: December 2015
What is your current job/project and main responsibilities? Please tell us as much as you like about what you are doing.

I’m the Assistant Director for Shark Research & Conservation at the University of Miami. Our program has two components: the research side and the programmatic side. On the one hand, our program’s job is to perform cutting edge science and to advance knowledge of sharks. At the same time, we’re taking great lengths to educate the public through our outreach efforts. I manage business operations for the lab. I try to reconcile the sometimes-competing needs of the program. I coordinate shark tagging trips, and I serve as project manager for many of our research studies. I might be pouring through budget figures one day and on a boat in search of sharks the next. It’s a challenging position that tests me physically and intellectually. However, responsibility bears fruit in terms of professional growth. I’m grateful for a job that allows me to be an efficiency guru and explorer at the same time. It seems to combine everything I’m good at. I really credit the M.P.S. program for giving me the scientific literacy to know the issues and navigate the politics. If at the end of the day my job is to be an administrator who makes it easier for scientists to do their jobs, I’m successful in doing so because I work hard, and because I was well positioned to be this kind of professional by getting an M.P.S. from the Rosenstiel School.

Why is what you are doing important?

Globally, many shark species are threatened. Scientist observed the steepest population declines in the past fifty or so years. This is the result of many factors, but chiefly it is due to overfishing. The field of shark research has come a long way in being able to provide evidence of shark abundance and shark movement, which are two things you really want to know if you want to generate effective conservation policy. Effective conservation policy, by the way, isn’t just about conservation for conservation’s sake, it’s about protecting economic resources, too. We know that sharks play a role in maintaining the structure and function of the ecosystems they inhabit. Our lab studies predator prey ecology of shark species throughout the globe. Our work is teaching us things about shark reproduction, shark immunology, and shark movement patterns in the face of global trends such as the warming of oceans through climate change. Taken together, what we do is important because we need to synthesize the complex and the hard to explain, and then we need to demonstrate that shark conservation is in the interest of people, too.

What was your MPS track?

Coastal Zone Management

Please tell us about your time here at RSMAS. Provide one of your favorite memories.

Something I think about often is the moment I realized that my life was changing in a big way when I began the M.P.S. program. Driving to campus one morning I understood that my commute involved this stunning view of Brickell and Biscayne Bay. If the conditions are just right, from the apex of the William Powell bridge, you can catch the sun reflecting off the Atlantic behind Virginia Key and the Rosenstiel School. And, oh, wouldn’t you know it that this is the place I call home. I must have driven across the bridge thousands of times by now but every time I do it just thickens a collective memory of inspiration. School and work can be work. But if you were to choose a place to work or study, I couldn’t think of a better one. It’s a privilege to have the community that we do here, and to have access to world class researchers and facilities. What a cool thing it is to learn about other research just by walking the halls, not to mention by attending a Sea Secrets Lecture or by grabbing a beer at the The Wetlab. I came to get a degree and I stayed. What else do you need to know?

Tell us about your MPS internship. How did this internship help you get to where you are today?

My M.P.S. internship was through Shark Research & Conservation (SRC). I took Dr. Neil Hammerschlag’s Conservation Biology class. It was my intention to do good work in his class in the hopes of being recognized for possible work in his lab. Because I wasn’t a classically trained scientist—in undergrad I studied English and afterwards I worked in marketing and sales—we thought the best place for me to help was by getting the lab’s program evaluation up and running. Every year the lab takes out thousands of people for shark tagging trips. The majority of citizen scientists are high school students. There was, and still is, a ripe opportunity to survey citizen scientists to determine the efficacy of our outreach during shark tagging trips. There is plenty of research on environmental education and many studies point to hands-on activities as a catalyst for sparking interest in STEM. Shark tagging trips provide a great opportunity to learn about sharks but are equally useful for figuring out the best ways to reach people. Learning about the process of learning made me a better practitioner. It also helped me see things I took for granted. When a student who’s never been on a boat before sees a dolphin on the ride out to site, sees seabirds and flying fish, their day is already made. When they see a shark for the first time it’s more powerful still. The trick for us as a program is to make the moment all the more impactful by providing context to the science, and by painting a picture of the animal. Because I was steeped in the program for my project I couldn’t help but find ways I could help improve upon its already strong performance. Becoming the lab manager was a logical next step.

List and describe 2 of your favorite classes at RSMAS. Why were they your favorite?

For obvious reasons, Marine Conservation Biology was a favorite. So too was a water resources management and policy course I took with Dr. Daniel Suman. We traveled to Vietnam and China to learn about water conflicts along the Indochina peninsula. We met academics from top universities in China and Vietnam. You go to the Rosenstiel School because it’s situated in South Florida and for the water access it provides you. But Dr. Suman’s course writ large the global issues of climate change and water scarcity. I’ll never forget it.

What piece of advice would you give to current or incoming MPS students?

I think it’s really hard to know what you want to do with any specificity unless you know what you don’t want to do. My best advice is actually criticism that’s been levied against me. That is, at least for a brief time you should get lost chasing butterflies. Your job on day one at RSMAS is to chase down all possible futures—you may be in the marine conservation biology track but you should sit in on PhD candidate presentations on oceanography. Even if you aren’t new to the field, as I was when I started, you should spend the first crucial weeks of your graduate career connecting the dots between programs and research projects, and you should build bridges with faculty and staff who align with your interests. You’re going to summon up all these resources so you can eliminate the things that don’t interest you, or, with a healthy sense of realism, recognize pipe dreams for what they are and put your very real skills to work where they matter most. Do great in your coursework but don’t let it overshadow what your true aim is: to get a job! Having a reliable network and a good sense of the market will help you land internships and form lasting relationships that will serve you in your new career.

All photos taken by Gammon Koval for Shark Research & Conservation at the University of Miami