Please tell us about yourself

When you think of a shark scientist, you don’t normally think “India.” But the fact is that the Indian region is important for sharks and their relatives. For example, there are six species of river sharks found in the world, and one of them (the Ganges shark, Glyphis gangeticus) is endemic to India. India ranks second after Indonesia on the global list of shark fishing nations. India is the world’s third largest harvester of sharks. So it makes sense that they have conservationists and scientists- defenders, if you will- in this region. 

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That’s where Shaili Johri comes in. Not only is she a shaker and mover (as a women in STEM in India and one of the growing number of shark scientists in the region), but she’s doing important research and telling people about it through outreach and science communication to the general public and those who do the fishing- the fishing communities.

Shaili Johri is a Postdoctoral Fellow and marine conservationist, working as a faculty member at San Diego State University. She’s also a recipient of an SCB Marine Section grant, for her work on shark conservation in India. 

We wanted to hold a Q & A with Shaili to learn more about her and her incredible work, and hear about what advice she has for future conservation biologists. 

I am a conservation biologist interested in developing genomics based non-invasive tools for monitoring wildlife populations. I closely engage with communities through science communication and co-develop sustainable conservation strategies for wildlife populations.I am originally from India, where I studied until my masters and then moved to the US for a PhD in genetics. I now live in San Diego and work on marine conservation as a faculty at San Diego State University.

When I am not working you will find me travelling, hiking, swimming the ocean, making pottery or cooking and spending time with my family.

What did you study?

I did my bachelors degree in Microbiology and masters degree in Biochemistry from India.

Throughout my education I was fascinated by animal biology, genes and behavior and this culminated in my getting a PhD in Genetics. It is during my PhD that I realized I would be the happiest working in the field of conservation and applying my skill set to protect and conserve wildlife biodiversity. Marine environments are the most under explored spaces on the planet, and this has led to a huge data deficiency among marine species, especially sharks and rays, ultimately making marine species prone to over-exploitation. I chose to be a marine scientist due to my deep interest and the need for research and conservation in this area.

When did you know you wanted to pursue a career in conservation? What made you think you could make a difference?

I grew up in India which is surrounded by vast oceans on three sides, and as a kid I remember being smitten by the ocean and its calm on family vacations. I was absolutely fascinated by the animal world and especially marine environments as seen on National Geographic and Discovery channels.

I have always loved animals and wildlife and always wanted to make a difference in the field. However, it was after I completed my PhD in genetics (of fruit fly neurons!)that I started identifying questions in wildlife biology that needed to be answered and that too using genetics tools. About making a difference, I worked closely and followed career paths of a few of my role models like Dr. Samuel Wasser (UW), Dr. Moira Brown (NEAQ), Katie Matthews (Oceana/SCB) and Dr. Elizabeth Dinsdale (SDSU), and these individuals strengthened my belief that science based conservation can be a powerful tool for wildlife conservation. We just need to keep going!

Shaili giving a seminar to fisheries students about the state of shark fisheries in India, the world and how they could contribute to sustainable shark fisheries. 

Tell us about your work

Using a tiny tissue sample collected from one of the largest fishing ports in India, a San Diego State University laboratory has developed a detailed genetic profile of a vulnerable shark species—a step that could prove useful in future conservation efforts.

Conservation geneticist Shaili Johri sequenced the genome of the silky shark, known for the distinctive texture of its skin and a particularly acute sense of hearing. It’s only the sixth new genome out of 1,200 species of sharks, providing data needed for biological conservation and management that was previously unavailable.

“Getting a genome tells you how the animal works,” said marine microbial ecologist Elizabeth Dinsdale, head of a lab in the Engineering and Interdisciplinary Sciences building where the work was completed.

Johri used a DNA sequencing instrument the size of a flip phone. Invented primarily as a medical diagnostic tool, the $1,000 device connects with a laptop computer to perform a genome “skimming,” a less complete version of the kind of work that would typically cost nearly $3 billion during the days of the Human Genome Project.

Today, genome sequencing is a speedier process. Because of this, researchers were able sequence the DNA of the shark in about three days and to annotate—the process of identifying the locations of the genes and what they do—in  about a year.

Johri, an adjunct faculty member and post-doctoral student in Dinsdale’s lab with a personal interest in wildlife conservation, traveled to 8,700 miles to Veraval, India, to collect DNA samples and assess shark biodiversity. The sharks are mostly bycatch, collected while fishing for tuna and mackerel.

Johri worked with collaborators from the regional College of Fisheries to act as liaisons with local fishers and sellers, obtain samples of muscle tissue as small as 3 millimeters from shark fins coming into the port and sold at fish and export markets.

The shark was sequenced on a hand-held device, the MinION, manufactured by U.K.-based Oxford Nanopore Technologies. The technology allows the sequencing to be performed  in the field through a connection to a portable computer; it has been used in remote field labs to sequence DNA from an Ebola virus outbreak.

The source of the fins wasn’t known at first; identifying a specific shark typically requires an entire body, Johri said. The sequencing, however, allowed her to identify one of the specimens as the silky shark (Carcharhinus falciformis) which swims in tropical waters and lives off tuna, octopus, and squid.

“What we show in this method is that it was able to sequence very different kinds of DNA within the silky shark genome,” Johri said, “so that increases the likelihood that it would be able to sequence other species equally well.”

The silky shark is not endangered, but is considered vulnerable due to the continued market for its oil and fins and a slow reproductive rate. And many similar species do face extinction. The ability to identify a shark species from genes in a small sample could help detect illegal trade and promote conservation management.

“Sharks are an important organism,” Dinsdale said. “Removing sharks has significant effects on all the other components of the environment.”

Identifying the genome provides information to learn more about the sharks’ numbers, where they live and their evolutionary development, filling an ecological “data deficiency” that applies to about half of all shark species. The new data then could be used to designate protected areas and take other steps to manage fishing.

While this research used actual tissue samples, Johri said the lab is testing the feasibility of gathering DNA just from ocean water, capturing it from shed cells or fecal matter of organisms that have passed by.

The product of the research is not yet a complete genome, Dinsdale said, “but it’s a quite good partial genome” and it corrects a previous effort that was found to be riddled with mistakes.

Beyond the use of the genetic knowledge in shark conservation, Dinsdale noted there are bigger science questions the study could help answer. Sharks show an apparently high genome stability that is a factor in their long life spans, great wound-healing powers and a near-immunity to cancer.

What’s your favorite tip for someone in our industry (conservation biologists)?

Students interested in conservation often try to build a career based on conservation. I would advise them, especially in the current political climate, to base a career in science and science policy, and through these engage in science communication and conservation. These choices will go a long way in ensuring a successful career for the students and in benefiting conservation goals.

Is there any advice you would give to someone starting out in your chosen career?

1.Gain experience working in all fields that interest you before committing to a career and then make an informed choice. Try it all with no reservations!

2.Gain expertise in a state of the art methodology not a species, this will ensure your skills are always in demand and can be applied to protect a vast range of wildlife species.

Shaili and Anjani meeting with fisher women in Porbandar, India to co-develop sustainable shark fisheries.

Did you have any life-changing experiences that put you on the path that led you to be doing what you’re doing today? Tell me about them. 

The numerous encounters with apex predators like wolves, bears and tigers during my wildlife excursions in Yellowstone, Alaska and India during my formative years made me appreciate wildlife and the importance of wildlife conservation. Since childhood I have always been fascinated by the ocean and its mysteries. The first dive of my life was in the Caribbean where I was encircled multiple times for ‘inspection’ by a beautiful nurse shark and this set me on a path where I wanted to know more and more about the ocean. Watching ‘Black Fish’ was a pivotal tipping point that pushed me to commit to a career in conservation.

Support from the SCB-Marine community has been instrumental in empowering me to pursue the conservation research projects I am undertaking today. One of my projects on shark conservation in India received seed funding through the SCB-Marine small grants twice in a row and this project has helped fill a vital knowledge gap about one of the largest shark fishing nations. My work, supported by this grant, has contributed to the reduction of data deficiencies with respect to sharks and has helped build bridges between fishing communities and researchers. The community support, and journalistic and peer network provided by SCB through IMCC and ICCB meetings has helped me connect with an amazing network of peers and collaborators, who have also bolstered my work in India. One of my students, Anjani Tiwari, who conducted much of the sampling and socioeconomic surveys in India for the shark conservation project, presented her work at IMCC5 through a diversity travel grant. Anjani received much praise and support from the SCB-Marine community for her outstanding research and this experience at IMCC5 will go a long way in shaping her forthcoming research career.

SCB’s emphasis on diversity is an important source of strength and empowerment for researchers like myself and has had a big influence in shaping my career.

My research career has evolved over the past few years where interacting with people whose lives are entwined with those of endangered wildlife has made me realize that conservation needs to be rooted in environmental justice. Teaching students and trying to answer their profound questions about wildlife and human wildlife conflicts, is an immersive experience and constantly keeps me on my toes, making sure I am moving in the right direction.

What are the skills you need to have to do the type of work you do? Where and how did you learn these skills?

Genetics and genomics knowledge are at the forefront of conservation science. I learnt these methods during my PhD and post doc.

What do you lost most about what you do?

Satisfaction of ‘trying my level best to make a difference for wildlife.

Being in the ocean! Discovery!

Anjani, explaining her research and analyses about shark fisheries to fishing communities in India, the largest shark fishing region in the world.

We collaborate with fishing communities in collecting our biodiversity and socio-economic data sets

and take this data back to the communities to co-develop sustainable fisheries solutions. 

What’s next for you in your work? What are you looking forward to?

Working closely with communities for mainstream application of science based conservation. Empowering students in environmental stewardship.

Looking for a tenure track faculty position or working with a non-profit conservation.

What are you happiest doing when you’re not working?

I am the happiest spending time outdoors and spotting wildlife! I enjoy Swimming in the ocean, chasing leopard sharks in San Diego, making pottery, travelling and experiencing cultures and cuisines.