With Discovery Channel’s Shark Week in full swing, we'll be lining up interviews with shark scientists from around the globe over the next few days to give you a behind-the-scenes glimpse at what life is like when every week is shark week!

Image: Christine Shepard

Dr Austin Gallagher is a marine biologist whose research is focused on the survival of species, including the conservation of predators and their relationships with prey. Beyond his academic work, Austin is a strong advocate of educational outreach and community engagement. He is founder and president of Beneath the Waves, Inc., a non-profit organisation that hosts outreach events worldwide to inspire and educate the public about the conservation of marine ecosystems. 

What’s your favourite thing about working with sharks? 

It has to be the unknown. For such popular and well-known animals, scientists lack some of the most basic information about their biology and ecology. I get a great sense of gratification knowing I am filling knowledge gaps or doing something for the first time. Oh, and the animals themselves are just so awesome and cool to watch and experience in the wild.  

Tell us about a memorable shark encounter.

There have been so, so many epic moments. Perhaps the most memorable was a week-long expedition I went on to photograph and film oceanic whitetip sharks. Those fish are beautiful and do not hide anything – their personalities are on full display all the time. My first encounter with a tiger shark underwater in the Bahamas was also very special. At the time, this was the largest apex predator I had ever shared a close encounter with in the wild. That moment triggered what has become one of the longest-running ecological monitoring studies of a marine super-predator, something that's taken a lot of blood, sweat and tears.

What’s the most challenging part of the job?

Continuously bouncing back after rejection. Rejection, in the form of grants or publications, is part of science – whether you are a graduate student submitting your first paper for publication or a Nobel prize-winning visionary. So much time and effort goes into the process, and getting canned can be disappointing. So it is important to surround yourself with amazing colleagues and peers who will keep your spirits high during the ups and downs of a scientific career. 

Image: Dr Austin Gallagher

You use social media quite a bit – has this tool helped you? 

Social media is a great thing. It has allowed me to reach more people with my work, interact with colleagues informally and establish a unique personal brand to my science. I do try to limit my time on social media, however, as it can be really distracting sometimes!

How did you first get interested in sharks?

Certainly as a kid growing up in New England, an area rich in maritime history. You could always find me exploring the beach or tidepools, but I always wanted to ditch my pail and shovel and go out in search of bigger things. For me, sharks were always these incredible, almost holy species. I think it was also the sense of fascination in species that need to kill for a living. This interest sustains my work today.

We have to ask, what's your favourite shark species and why?

Great hammerhead. They get a lot of attention due to their size and weird shape, but the story with them is so much deeper and more interesting than that. They are so sensitive to our presence in every way possible, even diving with them is challenging. They are on a path towards extinction, and given their amazing adaptations, this can only be described as beautifully tragic. Some of our theories on this topic have been controversial, but this has made studying them and trying to understand our role in their recovery very exciting and valuable. 

We see a lot of negative news about sharks. Any success stories you can share?  

I would say tiger sharks are a success story. Almost every one of my colleagues is catching them and studying them now. They are the new model for studying what makes apex predators in the ocean tick – and rightfully so, as they are super adaptable and capable of surviving under modified conditions. It is easy to forget that a tiger shark is comparable to a tiger or lion on land ... so getting them in abundance around the world in recent years could be a result of their populations starting to recover. Alternatively it may result from increased research attention in general, or the fact that their relatives are doing relatively worse. In reality, it is probably a combination of all of these, but this offers an amazing chance to see how this species performs and behaves in different oceans – with different stressors. This is something that my research partner Dr Neil Hammerschlag and I have been thinking a lot about lately.

What would you say is the most meaningful (and realistic) thing the average person can do to help sharks?

The standard answers do apply: educate, read, be a leader in your community. But I am also going to propose something new. If you like sharks and are concerned about their conservation, start researching the scientists who study them. Research their papers, study their approach, look up their videos and media appearances. Find one you connect with and reach out to them. Follow their updates, establish a relationship ... make them your shark pen-pal. Those personal connections can be especially gratifying for both sides and will help give you the information you need from a trusted source.

Top header image: Skylar Primm, Flickr