Ask a Scientist Series Q1 2022

CK1

In our quarterly series, we ask different scientists the same 5 questions. Join us as we see the world from a scientist’s eyes!

Introducing:

Carolyn Kovacs, M.S.

Our 5 questions for Carolyn:

  1. What do you do right now for work?

I am about to start a new position as an Extension Agent with the Florida Sea Grant.  As such, I am a public resource on the topic of marine and coastal ecosystems and conservation, and I get to create and deliver community education programs. 

  1. What motivated you to become a scientist?

I grew up in south Florida, USA and spent a lot of time outside, especially at the beach.  From a young age I wanted to work with marine animals, and as I got older I became more interested in scientific processes as well as environmental conservation.  It is a combination of wanting to do something to help protect what I love, and honestly also a little bit of a selfish desire to be able to be surrounded by marine ecosystems!  I love helping others learn more about the ocean and marine life so that everyone has the opportunity to appreciate it as well as have an understanding of how we are able to impact the earth – both negatively and positively.

  1. What is one thing about the ocean or marine life you want everyone to know?

Coastal ecosystems are some of the most productive on earth and are also responsible for a huge portion of carbon sequestration.  It is imperative to protect our mangroves, salt marshes, and seagrass beds – in addition to coral reefs – because they create habitat that serves as a nursery for many species of fish and invertebrates, protect our shorelines from waves and storms, remove carbon from the atmosphere and bury it in sediment, and help keep our water clean and clear as they filter out pollutants and sediments – which is especially key for the coral reefs that are often found adjacent to these communities!

  1. What is your favorite marine animal and why?

I studied bottlenose dolphins for my graduate thesis, and I love cetaceans due to their intelligence, interesting social structures, and resourceful feeding behaviors.  Around the world dolphins and whales have developed unique feeding behaviors that take advantage of their environment and even tools. For example, some dolphins in South Carolina “strand feed” – they swim towards the shore together to create a wave that pushes fish up onto the shore, and then the dolphins partially beach themselves on their side in order to catch the fish. The dolphins I studied in Georgia foraged in association with commercial shrimp trawlers, taking advantage of the work humans are already doing to get an easy meal.  These behaviors usually begin with just a few individuals, and then others in the population are able to learn from their “friends,” which I think is amazing.   

Aside from dolphins I have to say I also love spotted eagle rays – I just think they are so graceful and beautiful! 

  1. What’s been discovered on reefs that is mimicked by humans?

The design of shark skin, which is covered in a type of scale called a dermal denticle, has been a source of many types of biomimicry.  The scales decrease drag and allow a shark to swim both more quickly and quietly; this design has been adapted for Olympic level swimsuits to make swimmers faster. Scientists also noticed that sharks don’t get barnacles and parasites attached to them the way that other marine megafauna do – and it is because of their textured skin. Sharklet Technologies are mimicking this concept and design to create an antimicrobial surface, as bacteria have a harder time growing on this textured pattern.  Hopefully this could provide a non-chemical way to decrease infections and bacterial spread on surfaces in offices or healthcare facilities.  

Carolyn Kovacs is a marine science educator with a M.S. in marine sciences from Savannah State University. She has taught marine biology, oceanography, and coastal ecology for study abroad programs around the world, including four years onboard a sailboat teaching for Sea|Mester and three with the School for Field Studies in Bocas del Toro, Panama. She is excited to now be working in community education in her home state of Florida as an UF/IFAS Extension Agent for the Sea Grant. You can follow her adventures on Instagram.

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