Nearly every morning for two months, Chelsea Stephens dragged herself out of bed at 4 a.m. and made the hour drive from Dover to the coast to board a boat. Once onboard, she spent her days catching and studying an animal considered a nightmare by many — sharks, sand tiger sharks to be specific.
For Stephens, a marine biology major at The University Rhode Island, it was a dream come true.
"I've always loved marine biology," she said. "The ocean is fascinating; there are so many unique animals."
During her freshman year at URI, Stephens applied for a fellowship with the URI Coastal Fellows, a program at the university that helps students get hands on experience while aiding in solving real-world environmental problems. After submitting an application packet and undergoing a string of interviews, she was awarded a fellowship.
According to Brianne Neptin, coordinator of the Coastal Fellows, Stephens' acceptance into the program is due in part to her work ethic.
"Chelsea is very enthusiastic and driven to succeed," Neptin said. "She's young, but she's already decided that she wants to pursue her Ph.D. and stay in academia."
Stephens' scholarly ambition made her a natural choice for professors who, according to Neptin, want to give students like Stephens a chance to pursue their dreams.
Being a Dover native and a graduate of Ceaser Rodney Highschool, Stephens chose a fellowship that would keep her close to home. She elected to work with Delaware State University Professor Dr. Dewayne Fox and URI lecturer Brad Wetherbee on their research into how to prevent unnecessary deaths in sand tiger sharks.
"Sand tiger sharks are a protected species," Stephens said. "So when they are caught they have to be thrown back, but a lot of times their internal organs get ripped out when they get caught on fish hooks."
Because of how the sharks swallow, Stephens explained, when the sharks take the bait on fishing lines, the hooks typically end up in their stomachs, along with the food, and injure the shark. This is called gut hooking.
Stephens, along with Fox and Wetherbee, tested a new instrument that will prevent the sharks from being able to completely swallow the hooks.
Their research centered on hook blockers, which consists of a 10-inch piece of PVC pipe that is attached to a fishing line a few inches above the hook. The PVC pipe gets caught at the entrance of the shark's mouth so that the hooks only make it as far as the shark's throat.
Stephens spent 13 hours a day on a boat with the research team in the heat of July and August towing long line, splicing rope and driving a boat, all in the name of science. Not to mention the fact that she got up close and personal with more than a few sharks.
Page 2 of 2 - "It was a little scary at first," Stephens said. "Most of the sharks we worked with were bigger and more docile. They didn't thrash around or anything, but the smaller ones would try and bite your hand off."
Only two sharks were gut hooked when the group tested the hook blockers, whereas roughly 100 sharks were gut hooked when just traditional hooks were used.
After months of hard work to conduct and present her research in the form of a poster, Stephens was awarded first place out of 50 other students in the Costal Fellows competition on Jan. 4.
"I was so excited when I won," Stephens said. "I was really surprised there were so many other people with other cool research."
The shark research is just one stepping stone in Stephens' future plans. She intends to apply to be part of the fellowship again next year. After she completes he undergraduate work, she's got her eye on a Ph.D. and then she'll dive into the job market.
"I know the fellowship will help me with getting a job because I have experience," she said. "A company can hire me without having to train me."