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Award Winner Q & A - Samantha Leigh

Q. What award did you receive and when?

I was awarded the Samuel H. Gruber award at the 2017 AES meeting in Austin, TX.


Q. What degree are you seeking, from what institution, under whose guidance?

I am working on my PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology at the University of California, Irvine in Dr. Donovan German’s lab.


Q. What is the most important (actual or potential) finding of your research?  Give us a little background on the subject.

Through my research, I have developed a new technique to investigate the functional morphology of the spiral intestine in elasmobranchs. Until recently, researchers have used simple line illustrations to depict these unique digestive structures. Using CT scanning technology, my collaborators and I have created 3D models of spiral intestines from various elasmobranch species in order to begin to better understand how digesta flows through these unique structures. These 3D models can also be used to take quantitative morphological measurements, such as absorptive tissue surface area and intestinal lumen volume in order to better understand the role that the spiral intestine has in the digestive process.


Q. How is the award going to help you complete the project?

This award is going to help me to progress this project further by investigating how spiral intestine structure correlates with diet type in a phylogenetic context.


Q. What are your other research goals?

In addition to investigating the function of the spiral intestine in elasmobranchs, I also study the digestive physiology of the bonnethead shark. This is the only shark species that is known to consume copious amounts of seagrass, particularly as juveniles. My goal is to investigate if/how the bonnethead shark is capable of digesting and assimilating nutrients from the seagrass that it consumes. This research could lead one to re-evaluate the role that the bonnethead shark plays in seagrass meadow habitats.


Q. How did you get started in research/shark bio/science?

As a high school student, I volunteered at the National Aquarium in Baltimore and worked in a lab at the University of Maryland that uses nurse sharks as a model to study HIV immunity. Through these two experiences, I became fascinated with shark physiology and began to realize how little we understand about these important animals. I went on to receive my B.S. in marine and environmental science from Coastal Carolina University and then decided to pursue my PhD at the University of California, Irvine so that I could work and learn in Dr. Donovan German’s digestive physiology lab. I chose to focus on the digestive physiology of sharks because they consume such diverse diets and they likely play a role in controlling the biodiversity of fish species that humans depend on for food and economic resources.