Into the Water
The first time Aislyn Keyes swam with a shark, she smiled ear to ear and knew her fate was locked. She was at SeaLife Aquarium with the University of Minnesota’s Marine Biology Club, snorkeling with bamboo sharks. As the wide-nosed, sharp-toothed predators circled around her, Keyes reacted the way most people do to a basket of cuddly kittens.
“I was loving it! They’re like puppies,” Keyes says. “You wave a little bit of food and they come. They rub against you and bump into you. They’re so precious. I just wanted to give one a big hug.”
Over the course of Keyes’ time as an undergrad at the University of Minnesota, her enthusiasm for sharks has evolved from quirky interest to serious professional pursuit. Having transferred to the U of M as a sophomore in the fall of 2015, she discovered the Inter-College Program (ICP)—an individualized degree that would allow her to combine multiple interests. For Keyes, that translated to Spanish and sustainability studies with a special emphasis on marine biology.
“ICP isn’t cookie-cutter. You really have to think about what classes you want to take and why,” Keyes says. “It’s a more mindful, intentional degree.”
Meet Aislyn Keyes
Aislyn Keyes, a recipient of the Fibiger Award scholarship, wears her love of sharks on her sleeve. Literally. She owns many shark-printed t-shirts. She wears two shark necklaces, one with a small, obsidian-colored shark tooth wrapped in thin wire. Her backpack is in the form of a silver-gray plush shark, complete with white jagged teeth lining the zippers and two flat black eyes on either side of the bag.
“You should see my bedroom,” she laughs. It’s filled with shark- and ocean-themed everything, from bedsheets to stuffed animals to a jar filled with preserved baby dogfish sharks.
But an interest in sharks comes with more than collectable memorabilia and snorkeling field trips. As anyone who studies sharks knows, these animals have a dark and complicated history.
“Sharks are seriously misunderstood,” Keyes says. “And over the last few decades, shark populations have taken a nosedive.”
One of the reasons for the decline is shark finning practices (used for the delicacy shark fin soup) and sharks being caught as bycatch through commercial fishing operations. According to a study published by Marine Policy journal, it is estimated that 100 million sharks are killed annually. That’s a problem not only for various species of shark, but also for the balance of marine ecosystems that rely on these apex predators.
Keyes wants to take action to change that, and through various courses and internship opportunities, she is working to help others see sharks the way she does.
“These are some of the oldest animals on earth,” Keyes says. “They’re endangered. Some species are close to extinction. We have to do something.”
Learning to Love Jaws
Keyes’s coursework through ICP weaves together her interest in Spanish, sustainability studies, and marine biology, culminating in a degree that could put her in a position to really make a difference in shark conservation.
“A lot of shark finning happens in Latin American areas,” she says. “I could see myself moving there and using my Spanish to create awareness at the grassroots level. Shark finning is a big part of the economy in coastal areas of Latin America, and it creates a lot of jobs. But there are studies that say if you were to leave those sharks alive, you’d have more business from dive tours. People would come to see sharks alive in the water, not in a bowl of soup.”
It’s Keyes’s ambition to create social change around how the public perceives sharks. Instead of casting them as the villains of the sea or as an opportunity to make quick cash from their valued fins, Keyes wants to help others see them as the beautiful and graceful creatures she knows them to be.
Her studies have led her to the Bahamas to study sharks, and in the fall of 2016 she’s traveling to Honduras to complete a water quality survey, looking to show the effects of mangrove deforestation on the surrounding coral reefs. She will also be interning as a research assistant at the Whale Shark and Oceanic Research Center. There, Keyes will work with volunteers to do public outreach work and presentations, as well as coral reef surveys and plenty of dives to study marine life. Keyes is excited for the opportunity to make a difference.
“You can look at an issue and think, ‘This isn’t right. This needs to change.’ But how are you going to do it in the most effective way?” she asks.
One way she’s going to try this fall is through independent research and interviews in Honduras, delving deeper into the impact of dive tourism. The work will be for her honors thesis and will include Q Methodology—a way of gathering many different viewpoints and opinions on a subject in order to use that data for making recommendations.
There are many viable options for Keyes once she graduates in the spring of 2017 with her ICP degree. She is certain that she will pursue a master’s degree with a yet-to-be-determined area of refined study. Before grad school happens, though, she’s considering work as a fish biologist on a commercial fishing boat in Alaska.
“It’s a crazy idea because I don’t really support commercial fishing,” Keyes says. “But I do want to understand it. As a fish biologist, I’d be looking at all the things caught that weren’t part of the target species, and I’d tally the data and study it. I think it would be a weird, crazy experience.”
Of course, if Keyes could create any job for herself, it would be working with people of all ages, introducing them to the world under water with hands-on experiences.
“Most people see the ocean as just this big body of water. They don’t realize there’s a whole other world down there,” Keyes says. “It’s really incredible. I’d love to introduce people to the never-ending blue ocean.”
Learn more about the Inter-College Program.
Tropical Marine Biology and Shark Ecology