Jill Hendon serves as the assistant director of the Center for Fisheries Research and Development at The University of Southern Mississippi’s Gulf Coast Research Laboratory. Hendon’s research focuses on shark population assessments in the waters off of Mississippi as well as in shark reproduction/physiology analyses. Recently, Hendon took a few moments to offer advice to young scientists and talk sharks in a question-and-answer format.
Q. What is your hometown and educational background?
A. I have earned a bachelor’s degrees in biology and English from The University of Wisconsin-Eau Claire, a master’s degree in biology from The University of Southern Mississippi studying marine immunology, and I have achieved Doctoral candidacy from The University of Mississippi studying stress physiology.
Q. How long have you worked at Southern Miss and what other positions have you held?
A. I have been associated with Southern Miss since 2005. During this period, I would come down for the Summer Field Program at Gulf Coast Research Laboratory and co-teach the shark biology course. In 2008, I was hired as a technician in the Center for Fisheries Research and Development and have moved through the ranks to Research Associate, Research Scientist and now Assistant Director. I have continued teaching the shark biology class as a full instructor during that time.
Q. When do you remember first having a passion for marine life?
A. I first started getting interested in the marine world when I was in 6th grade in landlocked Minnesota, when we watched an interactive PBS series called Voyage of the Mimi. The episodes were considered an “expedition documentary” and followed the experiences of the crew that were studying humpback whales. The episodes would always end with integrated science and math lessons. I remember thinking I would love to be at sea and do that kind of science. My passion for sharks and other fish came later. I’m sure watching Jaws had an impact on that. It certainly turned my fear into a fascination.
Q. As a Summer Field Program instructor, you work with students hoping to do what you do for their career. What is it like seeing new eager faces ready to learn about your field?
A. Each year that I teach, I am reinvigorated. It is easy to get caught up in the stress of the every-day struggles that are associated with research. When I have the opportunity to step away from those stresses and teach others about the work that we do, I am granted the unique opportunity of seeing our efforts through their eyes. Seeing that excitement and yearning is refreshing and energizing. It makes me excited to pass on my passions to them and allows me to meet so many wonderful upcoming scientists as they are beginning their steps in this field. I am so inspired by the brilliant and amazing students that come through the programs. I love getting to know the students each year and seeing where they go on their career paths. Each story is so unique.
Q. What is the biggest misconception the public has about sharks?
A. I believe that the biggest misconception about sharks is the idea that they are a nuisance in the ocean. Sharks are actually extremely important to for the sustainability of our ecosystem. The coastal species of shark that we see here in our region are predatory in nature and are typically opportunistic feeders. Therefore, they will feed on the most abundant species in the area, keeping many of the baitfish populations in check and increasing overall species diversity for the region. Sharks also often feed on the dead or dying organisms in the waters, which is a great aid in keeping our waters clean. These sharks are integral to maintaining the health of our ecosystem as well as the intricate balance of the food web.
Q. What is the largest shark you’ve ever seen?
A. The largest toothy shark I have seen is a 12-foot hammerhead. They are such graceful swimmers and extremely agile and flexible, which I never would have expected. The largest shark I have ever seen is the whale shark. It wins hands down because it is the largest fish in the ocean. Many people don’t realize that we have a population of whale sharks right here in the northern Gulf of Mexico. The majority of the whale sharks in the Gulf are juvenile males (15-20 feet), and seeing them in person makes you realize how impressive their stature is. Then you will see a full size adult swim by and it is a staggering (30+ feet). They are a beautiful fish and to have the opportunity to see them in the wild is just awe inspiring.
Q. Not originally being from the South, what was the hardest thing to get used to?
A. The heat without a doubt. However, after having lived here for 16 years now, I can honestly say that I love the temperatures. I do not miss the tundra-like winters of Minnesota. I prefer to visit my home state in the summer when it isn’t so cold. I love living in the South. I love the history, the beautiful coastal ecology, and the deep-seated almost spiritual feeling that is present when standing under the magnificent oaks full of Spanish moss and overlooking a beautifully calm bayou.
Q. What is the best advice you’ve ever received and from whom?
A. To see every opportunity as beneficial. Sometimes it is difficult to have a path lined out for yourself and things do not fall into place as you had planned. You did not get the internship you wanted, or you do not get the job you hoped for, or your research is hitting roadblocks. All of this is probably happening for a reason. As long as you keep moving forward with the end goal in sight, the path will ultimately get there. No matter how winding it may end up, it will get you there.
Q. What are your proudest accomplishments as a research scientist?
A. My proudest accomplishments have always come from the interactions I have with the public, school groups, interns, and my students. I love doing the science. It is always exciting, always different, and always challenging, but sometimes we get too close to the science, too jaded and critical. It is not until we step away from it a little and look at the bigger picture that we are able to understand how awesome the science is. When I have the chance to do outreach, give seminars, or teach the field-based Shark Biology course, it reminds me to step away and tell the big picture story. New perspectives are always important and it is our connections with others that remind us to keep looking for those other perspectives. Diversity is awesome