URI Commencement 2021: Marine biology major looks forward to shark-filled future

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Bethany DeLoof swims with a whale shark
Bethany DeLoof swims with a whale shark off the coast of Mexico during a URI summer course in 2019. (Photo courtesy of Bethany DeLoof)

KINGSTON, R.I. – April 26, 2021 – While on a family vacation to Florida from her home in Strongsville, Ohio, Bethany DeLoof sat on a boat and pondered her future. As she did so, she thought that she would enjoy doing exactly what she was doing at that moment – traveling out to sea and learning about the oceans.

That’s how she ended up at the University of Rhode Island as a marine biology major. As she prepares to graduate in May, she is looking back fondly at the wide variety of opportunities that came her way during the last four years, from swimming with whale sharks and writing for a research magazine to learning to scuba dive and serving as captain of the track and field team.

“Coming from Ohio, I didn’t have a lot of exposure to the ocean, but I was definitely interested in it,” said DeLoof, who also majored in writing and rhetoric. “When I think back at my time at URI, I’ll mostly remember all those opportunities to get involved with marine biology.”

Bethany DeLoof competes in the winning 4 X 400 meter
URI senior Bethany DeLoof competes in the winning 4 X 400 meter relay race at the New England Championship track meet in 2020. (Photo courtesy of Bethany DeLoof)

Her favorite experience was taking a summer class that involved traveling to Mexico to learn about – and swim with – whale sharks, the largest shark in the world.

“To be able to swim with whale sharks for class credit was pretty amazing,” she said. “We were in the water with hundreds of whale sharks swimming around us; I had never experienced anything like that before. That solidified my desire to be in the field of marine biology and spend time on the water.”

Although DeLoof had a modest interest in sharks before arriving at URI, she developed a greater appreciation and interest in them as a result of the whale shark trip. So she contacted URI shark researcher Brad Wetherbee and asked to participate in some of his research projects. One involved the analysis of data collected from tagged stingrays at a site in the Cayman Islands called Stingray City, where large numbers of stingrays visit and interact with tourists.

“We looked at the difference between the growth rates of stingrays that regularly visited Stingray City as compared to those that don’t visit often,” DeLoof said. “And we found that the female rays that come back often had higher growth rates, probably because they were being fed by the tourists. But the males that revisited often had lower growth rates due to the fact that they’re outcompeted by the larger females.”

In a second project, she analyzed data from sharks caught in Delaware Bay to assess the differences in the size and species of sharks captured by different commercial fishing methods.

Because of her growing interest in sharks – and a realization that some of her fellow students had a similar interest – DeLoof started a Shark Club on campus to provide opportunities for shark enthusiasts to learn about and discuss sharks, shark research and shark-related careers. When the COVID-19 pandemic forced the group to abandon plans to go on some of Wetherbee’s shark research trips into Rhode Island Sound, they instead conducted a survey to learn more about people’s attitudes toward sharks.

Throughout her time at URI, DeLoof also competed on the University’s indoor and outdoor track and field team, serving as captain during her senior year. A sprinter whose best event was the 500 meters, she had her most successful year during the 2020 indoor season when she placed second at the Atlantic 10 Conference Championship in the 500 and was a member of the team’s 4 X 400 meter relay, which also placed second at the meet.

“I ran track in high school, and I really love the sport. I love competing,” she said. “I also like the challenge of managing track practice and homework and everything else I was doing. I like to keep busy and keep striving to achieve higher and higher goals.”

One of her goals is to incorporate writing into her career plans. DeLoof has already met with some writing success after having written about the research conducted by URI faculty for the University’s research magazine, Momentum. She wrote a half dozen articles for the magazine’s last four issues.

“I enjoy creative writing, though I haven’t had a lot of time to do it recently, but I think that science writing is what I’m especially interested in,” she said. “I’m not sure exactly what my career plans are yet, but I might want to combine my interests in sharks and writing to help promote shark conservation.”

With one more year of athletics eligibility remaining due to the cancellation of last year’s track season due to the pandemic, DeLoof plans to return to URI next year for a master’s degree so she can run for one more year while trying to decide her future plans.

“I love it here enough that I don’t mind staying around for a couple more years,” she said. “It will give me more opportunities to see what else there is to explore.”