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Elasmobranch lab Q and A: Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Institution: Virginia Institute of Marine Science

Lead researcher: Dr. Rich Brill

Graduate Student: Gail Schwieterman (twitter: @GDSchwieterman)


What is the central focus of your research group? Are there any big questions you’re guided by?

Dr. Brill is a cardio respiratory physiologist by training, although he has experience in sensory biology, movement ecology, and other fields relating to fisheries management. He works with students who are interested in filling the gap between traditional fisheries science and organismal physiology, aiming to use mechanistic understandings to improve the efficacy of management and conservation strategies.


How did your lab begin?

Anyone who is interested in fish physiology, particularly physiology in the service of fisheries management, is welcome to come talk to us! There are a lot of different ways to link basic physiology and traditional fisheries science, and we seem to find a relatively consistent stream of individuals who share the goal of thinking mechanistically to improve management.


What projects are graduate students working on?

I am the only graduate student currently advised by Dr. Brill, although there are many other collaborators we work with all over the world. I am currently working on several projects investigating the impacts of climate change and capture stress on fish physiology. By determining physiological tolerances and limitations, I hope to refine scientists’ ability to ask ecologically relevant questions regarding anthropogenic impacts.

Other students who are working with Dr. Brill are collecting environmental tolerance data that will feed into movement models, helping to more accurately predict fish movements both seasonally and long-term. Others are working on how climate change affects sensory biology. For example, using lionfish visual capabilities to help predict its ability to successfully invade the murky waters of the Chesapeake Bay. 


 In which parts of the world do you conduct your research – are there specific species or habitats you focus on?

Much of our work is based out of the Virginia Institute of Marine Science’s Eastern Shore Lab located in Wachapreague, VA. This facility provides ready access to several coastal elasmobranches, as well as commercially and recreationally important finfishes.

Dr. Brill also has recently been involved in projects studying the Greenland shark, and was part of the team that discovered it is the longest living vertebrate in the world.


Do you involve undergraduates in your research – if so, how?

We are located at the Virginia Institute for Marine Science, which is one of the graduate schools of the College of William and Mary. Because our campus is located a half hour’s drive from the main campus, we don’t have as many undergraduates working with us as many other institutions. However, those who are interested have opportunities to volunteer once or twice a week with the lab, and can learn animal husbandry and other valuable skills (depending on what projects are currently up and running).

We also have the unique ability to host NOAA Hollings Fellows during the summer. This paid program allows undergraduates to take on a project of their own, seeing every aspect of research from idea conception through to presentation at a conference. These projects frequently result in publications.


Has your group been involved in public outreach or science communication – if yes, what has been most successful?

I am currently a Gills Club Scientist, and am working on reaching out to a broad audience through social media. I have also led Gills Club events, sharing my research and findings with elementary and middle school girls.
I have also worked with the outreach and education department at VIMS, presenting my work through evening seminar series and working with local teachers to develop lesson plans using my real data.