Student Profile: Winter 2015 Graduate – Jason O’Bryhim

As course instruction comes to an end and winter convocation nears, we took some time to highlight one of the College of Science students from the 2015 winter graduating class. View convocation details.

Jason O'Bryhim

Photo courtesy of Jason O’Bryhim.

Name: Jason O’Bryhim

Mason Degree: PhD, Environmental Science and Policy (ESP) 2015

I chose Mason because…I also did my Master’s at Mason. I was able to take some of my PhD classes while being there.

The most interesting thing about ESP is…that it’s interdisciplinary. You can learn how to incorporate new policies. I like that you can see all the steps. The faculty is also very helpful.

My top three goals for the future are…to continue my research on shark conservation in Costa Rica, to continue working with undergraduate students in some capacity, and to obtain a post-doctoral or teaching position at a university.

My time management advice for students is to…plan for things to change and for problems to arise. Otherwise, you will not be able to complete everything in the time frame you hoped.

I advise undergraduate students to…attend class, ask questions, and get to know their professors. Your professors are there to help you, and if you plan to attend graduate school, their letters [of recommendation] could be key to your acceptance.

“His PhD research was some really ground breaking interdisciplinary research in Costa Rica on shark fisheries: he interviewed market sellers and fishermen about the trade; he genetically identified species, finding several threatened species being caught and sold; he also looked at mercury levels and found that most shark meat was above ‘safe’ levels.

Plus he wrote up his PhD as a stay-at-home Dad with his new baby Hannah, allowing his wife, a captain in the Army, to continue to serve.

Jason’s prior [Master’s degree] work (for which he gained the best thesis award) was on public opinions about sharks and in particular looked at the effect that “Shark Week” on people’s attitudes to sharks and their conservation. His work was published in the journal Marine Policy and it is in the top 10 most “talked about” papers [in the press and on social media for] that journal.”

Chris Parsons, Associate Professor in Environmental Science & Policy

Interview with COS:

What sparked your interest in sharks and marine life?
I have been interested in sharks since elementary school. I remember checking out all the books in the library about sharks multiple times. I can’t explain what exactly drew me to them specifically, but they have always fascinated me.

What role do sharks play in the environment?
A shark’s role in its ecosystem varies depending on species. Generally, people think of sharks as apex predators that work to regulate population sizes of other lower trophic level marine species. This is very important because they basically are helping to maintain the balance within the ecosystem. However, many sharks are also secondary consumers that many times are predated on by larger sharks.

Why do you think food safety agencies are more lenient with the high mercury levels in shark meat?
I think this depends on what country you are referring to. My research is based in Costa Rica where there is no current testing of seafood products from the central markets for mercury contamination. Therefore, all products are basically unregulated with sharks being no different. It should also be noted that other large predatory fish species like, billfish and mahi-mahi were found to have similar mercury concentrations to many of the sharks in my research. In the U.S., Canada, and Europe there are standards and guidelines limiting potential mercury contamination and sharks in some cases are allowed to have higher mercury concentrations. However, so are other large predatory fish like tuna. I don’t think agencies regulating mercury contamination are more lenient on shark products than they are on other fish species with similar feeding habits.

Having accomplished so much, what are your top three goals for the future?
Mainly I would like to continue my research on shark conservation in Costa Rica. There are a lot of questions still to be answered and with the political climate toward marine conservation changing in the area this research could prove to be very important. I would also like to continue working with undergraduate students in some capacity. I have taught undergraduate courses and mentored undergraduate students in research projects and I feel this is very rewarding and important in shaping future researchers. I also hope to obtain a post-doctoral or teaching position at a university to help me achieve both of the previous goals.

How did you manage your time so well?
I think time management is very different for everyone. For me it varied depending on what part of the dissertation process I was in. By far the most challenging portion was the last couple of months before I defended. At that point I was a new father, we had just moved to a new state, and my wife had started a new job. Balancing everything was difficult but you have to find time to get work done. So generally on weekdays from 7am to 6pm I was a new father and from 6pm to 2am I was working on my dissertation.

I would not say I was the best time manager, but it was what worked for me. My advice is when undergoing a substantial research project plan for things to change and problems to arise. Otherwise you will not be able to complete everything in the time frame you hoped.

Do you have a mantra or saying that you share with your students?
In the classes I have taught and as an undergraduate adviser I have always stressed one main point: Do not just be another face in the crowd in your classes. Attend class, ask questions and get to know your professors and let them get to know you. Your professors are there to help you and if you plan to attend graduate schools their letters could be key to your acceptance. If you want to be a good researcher you should always be asking questions about what you are learning and be able to create new questions about what could be done next.