Sharks aren’t just for boys: Gills Club inspires aspiring female biologists

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Lillian Peck looking a shark in the mouth during a Gills Club meeting. (Courtesy of Hillary Peck)

Lillian Peck looking a shark in the mouth during a Gills Club meeting. (Courtesy of Hillary Peck)

It’s no secret that there are fewer women than men in a lot of STEM fields. One group is trying to target that problem by inspiring a specific group of young girls — those who are interested in becoming shark biologists.

Marine biologist Heather Marshall’s interest in sharks stemmed from fear that turned into fascination.

“When I first started thinking about this career my mom got me the book ‘The Lady and the Sharks‘ by Dr. Eugenie Clark, and you know, obviously I was initially just captivated by the fact that it was a woman doing this research,” Marshall says.

Eugenie Clark is one of the first female shark biologists and is known for her work in marine conservation, as well as for founding Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida.

Clark died of lung cancer in 2015 at 92, but she went on scuba diving expeditions even during her last year of life.

In the 1940s and 50s, when Clark began her career, it was unusual for a woman, particularly one of Japanese descent, to be doing the work she loved.

“I read about William Beebe, who…was of course a great explorer. And I thought, wouldn’t it be wonderful to go down the way William Beebe did? And my parents would say, ‘Well maybe you can study typing and how to be a good secretary, and you can become a secretary to somebody like William Beebe. That would be exciting wouldn’t it?’ And I said, ‘No, I don’t want to be anybody’s secretary. I want to do that stuff myself. I want to be like William Beebe,'” Clark said in an interview.

Clark was inspired by Bebe, and Heather Marshall was inspired by Clark.

Marshall cofounded the Gills Club, which connects young girls with women who are working as marine scientists as part of an education initiative of the Atlantic White Shark Conservency.

Marshall says the idea is to show the girls what is possible.

“We’re really just trying to create a community where these girls, if they have an interest in shark research or just STEM disciplines in general, they know that they’re not alone, and they can kind of see the pathway forward if they decide to pursue such a career path,” Marshall said.

Lillian Peck joined the Gills Club when it was founded in 2013. Peck was only 5 at the time, and remembers being interested in sharks as young as 4 because she liked anything with pointy teeth.

“The first meeting, we did a dissection, which means we got to open up a shark, like we got to cut it open and see what it was like eating. I thought it was really interesting, like it was the first time I did something like that. It smelled kind of like rotten fish a little,” said Lillian, who is now 8. “It wasn’t that bad!”

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Lillian Peck holds a baby shark. (Courtesy of Hillary Peck)

During monthly meetings, the Gills get hands on experience they might not otherwise have, like going out in the field to tag sharks. Plus, they meet scientists who could become their mentors.

The meetings are held regularly at the Cape Cod Museum of Natural History in Brewster, Massachusetts and Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, and others have organized Gills Club events in towns across the country. The Gills can keep up with the group on Facebook, too.

“It will help me be a marine biologist and it’ll help me be educated first so I can be better at my job,” Lillian says.

Before she passed away, shark biologist Eugenie Clark was a featured scientist at the Gills Club.

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Heather Marshall with Eugenie Clark. (Courtesy of Heather Marshall)

“She still took time to share her experience and words of wisdom with the Gills. So having her, you know, share that part of herself was was very significant and very exciting for all of us,” club founder Heather Marshall said.

Marshall says she hears from some of the Gills that they’ve been told “sharks are for boys.” She hopes that this club can show them that that’s not true, and that girls can love gills, too.

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