Having a shark backpack prompted teasing at school.
The ocean predators couldn’t possibly be their favorite animal, they were told.
“Sharks are for boys, not girls.”
That’s what young girls, attending events run by the Atlantic White Shark Conservancy in 2014, told the female shark biologists they got to meet.
Those conversations sparked the formation of The Gills Club, a STEM-based education initiative run by the conservancy that is dedicated to empowering and connecting girls to female scientists studying and working in shark conservation.
Marianne Long, a co-founder of the program and education director for the conservancy, said the similar, repeated story from the young girls who expressed interest in sharks was striking.
“It got us really thinking about how these females who worked in the field with sharks can really be a very strong and needed role model for these young girls,” she said. “So we wanted to build that connection to them.”
The Gills Club — with the mantra “smart about sharks” — started as a monthly newsletter where girls would receive a free printed bulletin in the mail, introducing them to a woman working in the shark world.
The newsletter also introduces the girls — or “gills” as the club refers to them — to a shark species and gives them some sort of activity they can do to better learn about sharks at home.
“We started with that idea just to build that connection and really give young girls a role model and allow them to see what schools they could go to, what types of internships they could have,” Long said. “Or how it doesn’t just have to be science. It could be working in engineering, it could be working in cartography or videography — exposing all the different careers around shark conservation that they could look to acquire one day and give them that goal.”
The program co-founder said the club’s science team is now comprised of more than 90 scientists from the around the world who have donated their time to answer questions — in the newsletter and on social media — and create a profile so Gills Club members can use them as a resource as they pursue their interest in sharks and STEM.
The demand for the empowering shark education grew — and word of what they were doing started to spread so much so that they were approached about hosting Gills Club events on the Cape.
“We started creating the actual curriculum to provide experiential learning opportunities for girls,” Long said. “So it could be a time where they could come and have a hands on learning experience to further their understanding of sharks and learn about research practices, as well as meet other girls who are excited and interested in sharks.”
Those on-site Gills Club events, which are free, are open to girls ages 8 to 12, she said.
Now, the events are also hosted at locations across the country, ranging from Cape Cod to the Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota, Florida, to the Newport Aquarium in Kentucky. Long said the club is mailing out to just under 300 members each month, and, in 2017, from January to May, about 375 “gills” attended club events around the county.
“Gills should come dressed in clothes that can get dirty and should have their hair pulled back,” the club instructs for an upcoming event at the Marine Biological Lab in Falmouth, where girls will get the opportunity to dissect a spiny, dogfish shark to “develop their knowledge of shark biology.”
“It’s really grown to be much bigger than we’d ever anticipated, which is so amazing,” Long said.
This year was the first time a Gills Club Scholarship was offered for an undergraduate student to attend a shark course at the Shoals Marine Lab in New Hampshire.
The program’s been around long enough now that Long said she and her colleagues are getting to the point where girls who started with the program at the very beginning are starting to age out of the club’s existing program. She said there’s some thinking now about how the club can create a harder curriculum for the girls reaching the next level.
“There are all sorts of statistics that show that during junior high age, girls will lose interest in the different STEM fields, but, at the same time, we meet all these young girls who think sharks are cool,” Long said. “So [we’re] really trying to emphasize how they can pursue a career in STEM. And maybe it doesn’t end up being sharks specifically. But it is something in one of the STEM fields that we really want to empower and provide all these opportunities for young girls to see how they can get on that career track, to achieve that career goal one day.”