There was a shark head in Sarah’s freezer and a NASCAR race on the television in 15 minutes. So we only had time for a quick chat.
Sarah would be Sarah Oktay, who grew up in a hardscrabble part of Oklahoma and after high school cobbled together enough factory jobs, waitress shifts, and scholarships to stretch her life from a trailer park to a Ph.D. The road ended up being 17 years long.
And so years after she was working at a factory making the hard chrome for car engines, she was doing research at Ground Zero, following the path that the debris from The World Trade Center left in the Hudson River, in the wake of September 11. She was also analyzing air samples around lower Manhattan, studying what is now known as Trade Center Cough.
These days she is managing director of The University of Massachusetts Nantucket Field Station and Grace Grossman Environmental Center. The possibilities for scientific study on this island were part of what drew her here.
“In a closed system like this you don’t have to worry about the introduction of things that can change your data. I can’t believe how quick evolution is being achieved on this island. A black widow spider was found on Tuckernuck that might be a completely different species. They not only look different but act different. We are studying them to see if they are a truly different species or just a freaky new tribe. There is also a new species of knotweed that is a hybrid of two other species. That appears to have happened in less than 100 years, which is very fast,” she said.
In person Sarah does not come with a title. She moves easily between regular folks and academics. She feels science should be accessible. In fact, she sometimes uses what she jokingly calls “civilians” to collect data, including visiting elementary-school students.
“Civilians are just as capable of getting good research data. It is up to you to do a good job teaching them,” she said. “I never lived anyplace where people cared to much about science. You can especially see it in the kids.”
On this early evening at the end of August, she was in the middle of what is called a shark-gut study. As the catch from the Anglers’ Club shark tournament was being weighed at the dock, she was ready to find out what the sharks could tell her.
“We look at the size and health of sharks. We take out stomach contents to get an idea of what they are feeding on,” she said. Sharks are near the top of the oceanic food chain, so changes in their feeding habits are a window through which to see problems in the rest of the food chain. “It takes less energy for them to feed if there are a million little fish. But as certain species get overfished, the amount of effort the sharks put out to feed increases and that is important to know.”
In the midst of all the controversy about shark tournaments, Oktay’s work goes hand in hand with anglers.
“I have never begrudged people hunting and fishing so long as they eat what they take,” she said. “I am against people who hook a shark just to kill it, but this tournament only awards points to food sharks like threshers and makos. The fishermen here are very helpful. The ironic thing is that with more and more catch and release tournaments, I get less and less samples to study.”
It is messy business to cut open sharks, look inside their stomachs, collect some scat, collect samples from the brain, teeth, liver and kidney. But Oktay is the sort of scientist who likes to get elbow deep in her work.
“Life is what you make of it,” she said. “Most scientists that I know would not like it here. They like having their little teeny, tiny niche. They hate having to talk to people or work with kids. This is a good job if you like being your own boss and like deciding what to do, like being part of a place.”
Nantucket is a place where nature is often connected to politics, or at least to local debate. It is a fair bet to say that most scientists would not be so quick to jump into that mix. Sarah is more than happy to lend an opinion to local environmental debates. True to her roots, she is not one to back down when she thinks her science is right.
Sarah Oktay’s journey has given her friends who are factory workers, bikers, fishermen and university professors. Along the way she even met a few poets, one of whom she married. The gift of that unusual mix of friends is not lost on her.
“I have girlfriends in academia who do not even watch the Patriots,” she said with a shrug. “Never mind NASCAR.”
– John Stanton