While there, I made a lot of friends--including Simone! He, like all there, has been fascinated with the marine environment and its inhabitants, especially sharks.
During the week, we discussed his career thus far (it’s an interesting story) and where he saw himself later down the road… all while sipping on (well, I was chugging) tea, eating a lot and enjoying the brief sun that Plymouth offered us one day.
Simone and I have kept in touch since FSBI 2015, and I’m really excited that he agreed to an interview for this edition of “Behind the Fins.”
Simone Rizzuto: My career began in 2006, when I was choosing the university studies best suited to my interests and aspirations. On the one side, I had my parents trying to convince me to undertake studies that, in their opinion, were most likely to be favored by employers, such as Engineering or Medical School. On the other side, I had a voice in my head telling me that I would not have been happy for a single day of my life if I chose [any of those paths]. I have always been fascinated by the marine environment and its inhabitants, especially large predators such as cetaceans (dolphins) and sharks. For this reason, I decided to use this love for the sea to my advantage and (hopefully) make a career of it. Moreover, I really wanted to find out how I could be useful in the safeguarding of the marine environment against all anthropogenic actions that sadly cause great environmental disasters.
SF: So, what are you currently studying?
SR: I am a PhD Candidate at Stellenbosch University (Stellenbosch, South Africa). The title of my PhD [dissertation] is, “The effects of Endocrine Disrupting Chemicals on the reproductive health of great white sharks (Carcharodon carcharias).” It’s a tongue-twister of a title, but the topic is easy to understand: I am investigating the presence of environmental contaminants in the tissues of white sharks and how [these contaminants] can negatively influence their physiology. I collect tissue biopsies from the white sharks, and then look for the presence of contaminants coming from agricultur[al] (such as pesticides), industr[ial] and oil pollution.
SR: This project (ongoing since March 2015) will look at the levels of environmental contaminants present in a white shark, and their effects on the animal. This is a topic that hasn’t really been studied in shark science. The environmental contaminants are produced continuously by human activities (in the form of pesticides, fungicides, hydrocarbons, etc.) and many of these chemical compounds have the ability to be highly toxic (carcinogenic, mutagenic and genotoxic) and persistent (remain in the environment for a long time).
SF: What does that mean for the white shark?
SR: The white shark, being at the apex of the food web, has the ability to accumulate these contaminants by following the processes of bioaccumulation and biomagnification. This mean the white shark may find itself in the position of potential ecotoxicological danger. Some of these chemicals potentially act as disruptors of the endocrine system, affecting their normal physiological functioning. Sometimes we may witness the abnormal production of substances (in this case, proteins) which in normal conditions would not be produced. This is the case of the protein vitellogenin and the zona radiata, proteins normally found in mature female white sharks, which are being found in sexually immature females and males.
SF: That doesn’t sound so good!
SR: This is extremely worrying, and in the future could lead to the phenomenon of intersex. This has already happened in other elasmobranch species! Intersex specimens are those that are phenotypically males (i.e. have male sex organs) but have female physiological characteristics (which involves the inability to produce male gametes). This negatively influences the reproduction.
SR: I must say that my dream research and conservation project is embodied by my actual PhD. There’s nothing better than trying to help white shark conservation, especially if there is literally no knowledge about what you are doing. It can be frustrating, but it gets more and more exciting once you start making new discoveries.
SF: What has been your most exciting discovery/trip?
SR: I think I will always remember one of the first days of sampling. We were out at dawn with a small research boat, behind Geyser Rock (island where more than 50,000 Cape fur seals live) in Gansbaai South Africa. The sea, as often happens in this area, was not very calm but we decided to still go out. After almost three hours of waiting, we decided to go to shallower waters, where there seemed to be activity. In fact, after a half hour of waiting, in comes “Whitney,” a beautiful female of 4.2 meters. The way we knew it was her was because she has a white spot at the end of the dorsal fin.
After taking all the morphological and photo identification data, it was time to take the biopsy sample. I had so much adrenaline flowing in my body for the excitement of being able to collect my first sample. Having the eyes of all passengers, colleagues and crew did not help much. I remember this mass of muscles almost as long as the boat picking up speed in approaching the bait, getting closer and closer. When she came within range, I jabbed the biopsy pole with all my strength--it sort of felt like hitting a wall. Solid. Pure power.
SF: How did it go?
SR: “Whitney” noticed absolutely nothing. We had our sample!
SF: What’s a myth about being a shark researcher that you want to clear the record about?
SR: Being a shark researcher is a dream come true for me. It’s simply awesome to work with these animals, as you can discover every day something new about them. But like any other job, there’s always the “dark” side of the moon.
Having the chance to "start" to fulfill my dream, I would never speak of sacrifices, because as someone who gets to choose what he does I believe I should keep my mouth shut to honor those who don’t get the same privilege.
I am extremely happy to do what I do, even if this means being far away from my country, from my wife, my family and friends. I get up at dawn with a smile, knowing that I am going to do what I have always dreamed of. I get to spend an average of four hours a day slung over a shark cage to take biopsy samples, and then many hours on the computer to adjust the data of the day, but I can assure you that [hours fly] away as if they were minutes.
I have to thank the Marine Dynamics Shark Cage Diving Company and the Dyer Island Conservation Trust for the logistical and moral support they provide every day. Working in a well-prepared organization doing research and promoting conservation of marine wildlife is a huge advantage, both in terms of logistics and human relationships.
SF: Who’s inspired you most in your marine science career?
SR: My mentors who have guided me thus far are definitely my inspirations: Dr. Micarelli (who I met during my first scientific expedition in South Africa) and Dr. Marsili (my university advisor). Dr. Micarelli introduced me to the great white shark--not only did I get to interact with them, but I also got to attend lectures on the biology, physiology and evolution of elasmobranchs, which are priceless educational memories.
SF: Alright, last question, so you can get on with your exciting research! Where is a great place to keep up-to-date on the latest shark news and articles in your opinion?
SR: I think that using “sharkreference” is a good way to keep up-to-date on the latest shark news and articles, especially [through their] newsletter. Another way I [use is] Twitter, [gathering information] from other researchers: it’s easier, quicker and you have also the chance to ask questions directly. There are also very nice blogs, like www.sharkstuff.co.uk, where you can find the latest shark news. I have a website too, where I keep record of my work in South Africa: If you want to have a look [at] www.carcharesearch.wordpress.com.
SF: Thanks, Simone! We’ll definitely take a look at it. Good luck in all of your endeavors.
 Anthropogenic: the influence of human beings on nature
 Physiology: how animals function; i.e. how they move, digest, excrete, reproduce, etc.
 Carcinogenic: a substance that can cause cells to become cancerous by altering their genetic structure.
 Mutagenic: inducing, or capable of inducing, genetic mutation.
 Genotoxic: a chemical or agent that damages cellular DNA, resulting in mutations or cancer. Note-- all mutagens are genotoxic, but not all genotoxic substances are mutagenic.
 Bioaccumulation: the gradual build up over time of a chemical in a living organism.
 Biomagnification: the tendency of pollutants to concentrate as they move from a trophic level to another.
 Ecotoxicology: the study of the effects of toxic chemicals on biological organisms.
 Endocrine system: multicellular organisms is responsible for sending chemical signals which enable the cells within the body to communicate with one another and to react to the organism’s internal or external environment
 Intersex: when the reproductive or sexual anatomy of an animal doesn't fit the typical definitions of female or male.
 Phenotype: physical characteristics of the animal.
We'll make we keep up with this scientist- a toothy adventure awaits, we just know it!