Information Science and Management: Shannon Whaley

Shannon is currently working on a project to describe spatial distributions of fish communities and species across estuarine landscapes.

Marine Biology, Texas A&M University
M.S. Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences, Texas A&M University

Education / Experience
I have a BS in Marine Biology and an MS in Wildlife and Fisheries Sciences. My experience includes four years employment as a Research Fishery Biologist with the National Marine Fisheries Service in Texas, two years as owner of a of a biological consulting company, two years as a Wildlife Biologist with the Bureau of Land Management in Oregon, and one year as a Fish Ecologist with the U. S. Geological Survey in Florida. I now work as an Associate Research Scientist with the Florida Marine Research Institute in St Petersburg, Florida.


What are you working on now?
I am currently working on a project to describe spatial distributions of fish communities and species across estuarine landscapes. This project draws from knowledge I have gained through working with a diverse group of estuarine ecologists, fish biologists, geographers, geologists, wildlife biologists, natural resource managers, and Geographic Information System analysts.

Was work using Geographic Information Systems in the field of Marine Ecology your original career interest; why or why not?
My interest in marine biology began when I became a certified scuba diver at age 12. Soon after I completed scuba training, my family traveled to Cozumel, Mexico. I was awestruck by the amazing coral reef community. From the moment I went diving on the trip to Cozumel, I knew I would become a marine biologist. If my parents had not encouraged me to get scuba certified and provided the opportunity to see coral reefs, I might not have found one of my life's greatest interests. Learning about animals and ecosystems has always been my big passion. In high school, I learned that I had an interest in computers as well. Computers were different back in the 1980s, when I took my first computer programming class. Generally, computers were big and slow, and few people had a computer at home. Geographic Information Systems were just emerging as computer-based systems, and I did not know about them.

What would you say is your biggest accomplishment?
The toughest job I ever had also holds my greatest accomplishment so far in my career. While working as a wildlife biologist in the Pacific Northwest, I worked under federal legislation called the Northwest Forest Plan. In accordance with this plan, I helped to manage the forest ecosystem by surveying and documenting the location of many types of forest creatures. Important parts of the ecosystem not only include beautiful birds such as the spotted owl, but furry creatures such as big-eared bats and a hamster-like creature, called a red tree vole, that climbs tall trees and eats tiny fir needles like people eat corn-on-the-cob. We also looked for salmon in the streams and other species along the forest floor like snails, rare mushrooms, and plants. The Northwest Forest Plan said that my co-workers and I were to decide together in an interdisciplinary team how to best manage the whole forest ecosystem-this was a tough task. This team included soil scientists, hydrologists, timber managers, silviculturists, cadastrals, fishery biologists, and wildlife biologists. Our common language in these interdisciplinary team meetings were maps-actually computerized maps developed using a Geographic Information System (GIS). Through this experience, I learned how useful maps could be. From the diverse people working on these projects, I learned many things, including the many ways to see a forest; each point of view was different based on each person's education, training, and life experiences. As a member of an interdisciplinary team, we made the decision to save numerous patches of old growth forest in order to protect several special-status fish and wildlife species found by my field crew. We tried to connect the patches with other protected areas, such as protected areas around streams, to allow the animals to move more easily among patches. Although it was disappointing that we couldn't save everything, we did save intact pieces of the forest ecosystem. With the continued existence of these pieces, there is hope that the forest ecosystem may spread again across the landscape.

What do you like most about your career?
I work with great people who share my interests in marine science and habitat conservation. My job is a continual learning process because there is so much to learn about marine ecosystems. I am fascinated by both the complexity and the simplicity of ecological systems. I find it interesting to explore both patterns that are common to many ecosystems and the exceptions to these patterns. I like working with others in trying to figure out ways to develop information that can be used to conserve marine habitats and species. It's like a big mystery and I find clues that tell me how nature works. We will never have all the answers, but it is rewarding to investigate new ways to use what we do know to better conserve marine habitats and species.

What do you like least about your career?
Sometimes I get frustrated by how long things take when multiple bureaucracies are involved in a project, but this has helped me develop patience!

What are some of your biggest challenges?
My challenges have been mainly related to beaucratic issues common in government.

What advice would you give to someone interested in pursuing a career in your field?
Understand that the marine science field is highly competitive. Rewards are great; however, these rewards rarely involve money! This may be discouraging news for many, but I believe that if you really want to be a marine scientist, this will probably not deter you from succeeding in this fascinating field. If you are up to the challenge, you must start early in your education to prepare yourself for this field of study. I recommend reading as much as you can, maintaining good grades, and volunteering in the field. If you are interested in marine science but live far from the ocean, try volunteering with freshwater and terrestrial scientists or conservation groups. Scientists and conservation groups in most geographic areas could use your help. These activities will give you an idea of the scientific process common to many scientific fields. I suggest that you also cultivate diverse experiences; this diversity will provide you with a unique perspective and set you apart from the crowd no matter what field you decide to pursue.

Hydrologists study the distribution or flow of water (such as across a watershed or through a river).
Silviculturists deal with the production of trees (similar to agriculture).
Cadastrals are involved in surveying land to precisely determine legal boundaries.

FWC Facts:
Seagrasses occupy only 0.1 percent of the sea floor, yet are responsible for 12 percent of the organic carbon buried in the ocean, which helps reduce atmospheric carbon dioxide.

Learn More at AskFWC