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Take 5 with Kara Yopak

Shark Week with UNCW’s first-ever ichthyologist of comparative neuroscience

Just in time for the thirtieth anniversary of Discovery’s Shark Week this month, we check in with UNCW marine biology assistant professor KARA YOPAK, who says sharks have gotten a bad rap. She should know since she’s personally swam with them nearly fifty times throughout her lifetime and studies their thinking patterns for a living. Yopak, who joined the faculty in spring of 2017, is the university’s first-ever ichthyologist of comparative neuroscience. In a nutshell, she studies shark brains, and for a UNCW marine biology student, getting to partake in Yopak’s research lab is a rare treat.

WHAT FIRST INTERESTED YOU IN SHARKS?

“When I was five I announced to my mom I wanted to be an ichthyologist and study sharks. While everyone else was reading Nancy Drew, I was reading anything and everything I could get my hands on about sharks.”

WE HEAR YOU’RE A BRAIN COLLECTOR.

“That’s one way to put it! My research interests lie in the evolution of the brain. In my lab, we have examined the brains of over 180 species and find that brain morphology reflects an animal’s ecology and behavioral complexity.”

WHAT WOULD YOU LIKE THE GENERAL PUBLIC TO KNOW ABOUT SHARKS?

“One common misconception is that sharks are ‘mindless eating machines.’ But, we’ve shown that sharks have a battery of highly developed sensory systems, are capable of a wide range of complex behaviors – including learning, and have brain-weight-to-body-weight ratios that are comparable to those of birds and mammals.”

WHERE ELSE HAVE YOU STUDIED AND WORKED?

“I went to Boston University for my undergraduate degree and completed my Ph.D. in New Zealand at the University of Auckland. Two subsequent postdoctoral fellowships were at the University of California, San Diego and the University of Western Australia.”

AS A SCUBA DIVER, HAVE YOU GOTTEN UP CLOSE TO SHARKS?

“I definitely have. There is nothing like being able to see these animals in their natural environment to realize how majestic and well-designed they are.”

 

To view more of photographer Terah Wilson’s work, go to terahwilson.com.

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