Swimming with Sharks

By Lee Anna Sherman

For Courtney Jackson, everything began when she saw a shark swim across a television screen. She was in second grade, and the Discovery Channel’s Shark Week took her underwater and face-to-face with fearsome predators. At the end of it, she came to one conclusion: She wanted to be the scientist swimming with the sharks. A decade earlier, the movie Jaws might have terrified the world with dramatic shark attacks, but Jackson was more inspired than frightened.

Blue skies frame a tidal-zone census for Courtney Jackson. (Photo: Kelsey Kennedy)

Now a senior at Oregon State University, Jackson is still pursuing that goal through her studies in marine biology. “Nothing else has interested me as much as the ocean and everything that lives in it,” she says. A native of Olympia, Washington, she chose OSU over the University of Hawaii and schools in Seattle because Oregon State allows her to enjoy life in a smaller city away from a bustling urban center. She was also attracted to nearby beaches, OSU’s Hatfield Marine Science Center and the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Pacific Fleet headquarters just over the Coast Range in Newport.

PISCO Project

Shortly after Jackson’s arrival at OSU, a chance to do research came during a meeting with her adviser. After expressing a desire to do an internship, she was soon volunteering three hours a week in Bruce Menge’s lab. Menge, a Distinguished Professor of Marine Biology, is also one of the leaders of a West Coast marine research consortium known as PISCO, the Partnership for Interdisciplinary Study of Coastal Oceans. Its focus is the ecology of the coastal ocean and the intertidal zone. That summer, Jackson started a three-month internship with PISCO.

Jackson and a team of graduate students, research technicians and other undergraduate assistants split their time between the coast and a lab in Corvallis. Most days, Jackson can be found in the lab at a microscope, counting and cataloging young mussels, barnacles and the other tiny organisms that PISCO is monitoring in the intertidal zone. To collect them, scientists fasten pieces of boat decking and mesh sponges to the rocks where they will be washed and covered regularly by the tide. Species trying to eek out a living on the rocks attach to these small platforms.

Prepared for Rain

Days in the field are nothing like days in the lab. Instead of a typical nine-to-five routine, Jackson and her team are on the road before dawn, heading to a field site to catch the tide as it’s going out. Clad in “lots and lots of rain gear,” as she puts it, Jackson and her lab mates work to beat the clock — to collect samples before the tide comes back in. They scramble over the slick, jagged surface to reach the experimental devices installed among the anemones and mussels. They take water samples, count species and measure specimens. Their data help PISCO scientists understand these diverse marine ecosystems and contributes to decisions about the management of near-shore waters.

This mission is what drives Jackson. “I don’t care if it’s pouring rain; I have the rain gear,” she says. “I really like being able to be around the ocean and be involved in something that’s an actual experiment that’s going to better something out there.” The wind, the rain, the rocks covered in slippery algae and flooding her rain boots are just part of the experience.

She may not be swimming with sharks just yet, but for now, getting her feet wet will do just fine.