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UNF graduate takes a bite out of shark research

Ashlynn Kemp Headshot

After discovering a shark tooth nestled in the sands on a little island in the Nassau Sound in the seventh grade, Ashlynn Kemp’s fascination with sharks and the realm of coastal marine biology took hold and never let go.

Kemp, who was born in Jacksonville and despite moving around a lot as a kid, eventually found her way back to her hometown before attending high school. After much contemplation, she decided to continue her academic journey in Jacksonville, enrolling at the University of North Florida to pursue a degree in biology through the Hicks Honors College. She will walk across the stage at commencement next Friday.

“I was looking for advice on what I should do for college and spoke with one of my high school teachers,” Kemp said. “He told me that if I wanted to do anything with sharks, I should talk with Dr. (James) Gelsleichter. Afterward, I didn’t have any question about where I wanted to go.” Dr. Gelsleichter is a biology professor who teaches shark biology, endocrinology, and toxicology and is the program director for the UNF Shark Biology Lab.

Throughout her time at UNF, Kemp participated in various research opportunities.

From October 2021 to May 2022, she worked with Marineland as one of thirteen aquariums partnered with the South-East Zoo Alliance for Reproduction and Conservation (SEZARC) to form the Sand Tiger Shark Consortium. The goal of the consortium was to address the poor reproduction of sand tiger sharks, the lack of knowledge of their reproductive ecology and physiology, and better educate the public about the species. While working in Marineland’s workshop, Kemp was trained to identify important shark behaviors by observing the four male sand tiger sharks at Marineland.

Learn more about the Sand Tiger Shark Consortium’s research.

In the summer of 2022, Kemp took part in a program on shark ecology. The course allowed students to become full-fledged members of the UNF Shark Biology Program, where they contributed to the now over ten-year annual survey of the shark population in Northeast Florida. Taught by Dr. Gelsleichter, Kemp received training on how to handle and tag sharks, collect biological samples and statistical data, and identify different shark species.

Learn more about the field course and other research opportunities offered at UNF.

Ashlynn Kemp standing next to her 'Sand Tigers and Shipwrecks' posterAlso in 2022, Kemp gained further experience and won Project Leader of the Year through UNF’s Environmental Leadership Program (ELP), a platform that is open to all undergraduate students to complete leadership training and implement a community-based project.

Kemp’s project started when she was put into contact with both SEZARC research associate Dr. Lara Metrione and Dr. Carol Price, the conservation research coordinator for the North Carolina Aquariums, project manager for Spot a Shark USA, and instructor at North Carolina State University.

The project focused on educating the public and advocating for the importance of artificial reefs for sand tiger shark habitats on the Atlantic coast by creating a three-dimensional model of the USS Tarpon to display at the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island. To make improvements to the model, Kemp worked with multiple organizations including UNF’s own STEP Lab with supervisor and faculty administrator Dr. Nicholas Eastham, the North Carolina Aquarium at Roanoke Island, and Spot a Shark USA. Kemp’s project sparked conversations about sand tiger sharks and shipwrecks and promoted programs such as Spot a Shark USA.

Learn more about Kemp’s project on “Sand Tigers and Shipwrecks”.

Recently, Kemp attended the 2023 American Elasmobranch Society Conference where she presented research she conducted with Dr. Gelsleichter throughout the 2022-2023 school year. Their focus was on determining whether there is variation in Anti-Mullerian Hormone (AMH) concentrations with respect to the sexual maturity and reproductive stages of sharks. With the help of the UNF Shark Biology Lab, while the presence of AMH was confirmed, they learned that it may not be a viable indicator of reproduction with current methods.

Ashlynn Kemp handling a shark"One of the people who was integral to my overall success as an undergraduate was Dr. Jeff Chamberlain 'Dr. J'," said Kemp. "He encouraged me to put myself out there to seek research opportunities. He is someone who genuinely cares about students, and it shows. I am truly grateful for our conversations throughout the past few years because his support and advice has given me the motivation I needed to finish strong."

Outside of her research, Kemp looks back on her time at UNF fondly. She had served as the president of UNF’s Kappa Alpha Omicron Environmental Honors Society, where she met some of her best friends, participated in a spring break field school program, and made memories she says wouldn’t have been possible without the support of UNF faculty.

“I was a super shy person when I first stepped foot into UNF, but through all these experiences I’m not as shy anymore,” said Kemp. “I owe a lot of that to the programs I had the opportunity to participate in and the people I met. Everyone here has been very supportive and pushed me forward.”

Kemp looks towards the future with great anticipation as she plans to pursue her master’s and doctoral degrees to enhance her undergraduate education and experiences. She is hopeful to have her first publication soon.

Kemp proves that at UNF, even a quiet, shy student can swim with the biggest sharks in the sea.