Profile: Derek Burkholder

May 5, 2020

Hailing from Michigan, Dr. Derek Burkholder now calls Florida home where he studies sharks and sea turtles as a research scientist at Nova Southeastern University with the Guy Harvey Research Institute and Save Our Seas Shark Center. He’s also the director of the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program, the director of the Marine Environmental Education Center at the Carpenter House, and the vice president of the non-profit Sharks4Kids Inc.

Tell us a bit about your journey to ocean science from growing up in Michigan.

I have been extremely fortunate in my journey from Michigan to a job in marine science.  I have always had a love for the oceans, but growing up in Michigan I never really expected to be working in the field.  However, I have had some amazing mentors over the years that have allowed me to get to where I am today.  It started with Dr. Jeff Carrier who I worked with during my undergraduate career at Albion College.  I was able to work with Jeff and join him in the field on several research trips including month long expeditions studying nurse shark reproduction in the Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys.  On one of these research trips with Jeff, I met Dr. Mike Heithaus, who at the time was the program host/scientist for the National Geographic Crittercam series.  After working with Mike and the National Geographic team on an expedition, I was invited to travel to Washington, DC for a summer internship with the Crittercam crew at Nat Geo.  Over the course of this internship, I worked with Dr. Heithaus and we put together a potential PhD project. 

When I finished my BA in Biology at Albion College, I accepted a job at Mote Marine Lab in the Florida Keys where I worked as a staff biologist gaining important field research experience and conducting a shark census of the Florida Keys for a year.  After that I joined Mike Heithaus at Florida International University as a PhD student and was very fortunate to conduct the research for my dissertation in Shark Bay, Western Australia.  I spent about 6 months a year in Shark Bay for the next few years and several 3-month seasons after that conducting my research. 

Once I graduated with my PhD from FIU, I accepted a Post Doctoral position at Nova Southeastern University working with Dr. Mahmood Shivji, Director of the Guy Harvey Research Institute and the Save our Seas Shark Center at NSU.  With Dr. Shivji I started a local shark research and education program for NSU where we study the local shark communities in South Florida and engage with students and the public to get people in the field and hands on with our research teams.  From here I was able to take over the long term Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program (BCSTCP) at NSU where we conduct the nesting beach monitoring for sea turtles along 24 miles of beaches in Broward County from March 1 through the end of October each year.  As an addition to the BCSTCP, in 2017 I was fortunate to work with an amazing team as director in designing, building, and opening the Marine Environmental Education Center (MEEC) at the Carpenter House in Hollywood, Florida.  The MEEC is a partnership between Nova Southeastern University and the Broward County Parks Department.  We are an open-to-the-public facility dedicated to sharing marine science and conservation with a wide audience and offer educational programming for our guests and age-tailored field trip programming for school groups.

What are your main research focuses? Has the coronavirus pandemic impacted your work?

My research focuses primarily on shark and sea turtle conservation.  I am interested in predator prey interactions and the top down effects on communities. I investigate animal behaviors like movement/migration, nesting biology of sea turtles, and foraging behaviors of these animals.  The coronavirus pandemic has impacted the work primarily from the shark research side of things, as it has not allowed us to get on a boat to be able to conduct our research for the last month and a half.  Additionally the Marine Environmental Education Center has been closed to the public for about 6 weeks as well, and will remain closed for the foreseeable future during the pandemic.  We are, however, shifting and working to provide educational content via recorded videos, as well as live Zoom broadcasts to the public as well as with school groups during this time.  The sea turtle programs have not been as impacted at this time, however we will need to alter our survey methods in another month or so when we normally have multiple people on an ATV (will not be possible with current social distancing protocols in place.)

Have you seen any evidence of changes in sea turtle behavior because of the quieter beaches?

At this time we have not seen a large impact on our beaches from the beach closures due to the Covid pandemic.  However, early in the season we only get leatherback nests and, for Broward County, that is by far our lowest number of nests in the county per species. Traditionally, leatherbacks are not influenced as much during their nesting behaviors by the presence of people.  However it will be interesting to see over the next months if the beaches stay closed how the loggerhead and green turtle populations will be impacted.  They traditionally have a much higher rate of false crawls to nests (about 50/50).  A false crawl is when a female turtle crawls up on the beach to nest and for whatever reason will return to the water without laying her eggs.  This can happen because the sand isn’t quite right for her, or there is not enough room on the beach where she hauled out, but more often than not these can be caused by human interaction, bright lights, interactions with people on the beach, etc.  So it will be interesting to see as loggerhead and then green turtle nesting increases for the season if we do see a lower false crawl rate with the quieter beaches. 

I know you do a lot of community outreach. Why is this so important to your programs?

The marine ecosystems around the world are in trouble, and so I believe that it is our duty as scientists to share the information that we are learning as largely and widely as possible.  I particularly believe that by teaching kids about this work, and conservation, we will have the largest impact in the long term in helping our marine ecosystems and organisms. There are so many ways that people learn, and I think it is important to be able to offer learning opportunities that are outside the classroom, that are hands on and engaging to get people excited about what they are learning with the hope that that enthusiasm will help them ultimately care and help spread the word and aid in the gravely needed conservation efforts globally.  Little changes by lots of people are how the ecosystem and these communities will be able to start to rebound.  Those small changes can only come from education, and so I believe that community outreach and engagement is of top importance for all scientists today.

What is your favorite part about your job? 

One of my favorite parts of my job is working with students and members of the community in our research and education programs.  It is invigorating for me to be able to get people into the field and to see these amazing animals up close and personal to try to help them realize that that shark is not a monster, and that sea turtle is a vital cog in the marine ecosystem helping to keep the system operating and healthy for all of the other organisms that live in the area.  It is great to see a boat full of kids scared of sharks when we are leaving the dock to being energized, and excited about these animals, and advocating for them as important, misunderstood and dynamic creatures that we NEED to have in our oceans by the time we are getting off the boat at the end of the day.

What brings you hope for the future of the ocean?

My biggest hope for the future of the ocean are the kids and students that I get to work with.  There are some amazingly inspiring kids doing amazing work and making real change with their behaviors and the behaviors of those around them.  To see the way that parts of our planet are healing during this pandemic is also a great message.  Many times conservation is a long game and is not something that can be seen quickly. Even when it is working very well, it can take years, or decades. However, with the global shutdown due to the Covid pandemic, we are seeing some dynamic changes in water quality, reductions in air pollution, etc. in places around the world that show first hand how global changes by everyone can have significant impacts on the health of our planet, and that NOW is the time to make these changes to protect these ecosystems and animals for years to come.

Thank you, Derek!