In summer 2015, Dr. Megan Shoff, associate professor and vice chair of the biomedical sciences program in Hodges University’s School of Allied Health, experienced a once-in-a-life opportunity. Traveling to South Africa, she was on a boat for six hours each day looking for seals. While this may not seem too exciting, she was not only looking for seals but was part of a documentary focusing on how sharks hunt at night.
“I’ve always had a love for the ocean,” Shoff said. “I love being outdoors and being on the water.”
Growing up in Texas, Shoff earned her bachelor’s in applied learning and development from The University of Texas at Austin in 1998. After working as an executive assistant, Shoff knew the purpose of her life was not to sit behind a desk. Instead, because of her love for the outdoors and the ocean, she went back to school in pursuit of her passion for science, research and sea life.
In 2003, she started her master’s program in marine biology and marine environmental science at Nova Southeastern University (NSU). After her first project fell through, one of the deans informed her of an opportunity in microbiology. That is when she fell in love with microbiology and met Neil Hammerschlag, who served as the biologist featured on Shark Week’s Air Jaws: Night Stalker.
Graduating in 2006, she began the doctoral program in microbiology at The Ohio State University. In 2008, as a graduate research associate, she studied the efficacy testing of contact lens cleaning solutions; water testing and analysis of amoebae presence; as well as isolation, genotyping and sequencing of amoebae from tissue and environmental samples.
“When I decided to go back to school, I thought I would be doing something where I was on the water every day. However, I was more involved in things that put me furthest away from the water,” she laughed.
As a result of her work and contacts made while in her Ph.D. program, as well as the research she conducted on eye disease with doctors in Chicago, she worked as a staff fellow research microbiologist for the United States Food and Drug Administration (FDA).
“After three years, I realized I didn’t want to work for the federal government anymore, so I began looking for positions at schools near the water,” she said. After talking with former Hodges health sciences professor Valerie Weiss, Shoff joined the university in January 2012 as an assistant professor before advancing to associate professor and vice chair of the biomedical sciences program.
While at Hodges, she has worked closely with former Hodges professor Mark Clifton to redesign the biomedical sciences program, saying, “Before, we were health studies, so Mark and I decided we needed to update the program so it would appeal to a wider array of students.” After researching programs and developing a curriculum, they created the new program, which fills the needs for Hodges’ pre-medical students, as well as those in other areas of science.
Although her current position does not have her on a boat researching marine animals or analyzing ocean plant life, her experiences are learning tools for her students. As vice chair of the program, Shoff is the academic advisor to 90 students. As an associate professor, she teaches Microbiology and Biology II, but also teaches courses such as Biology, Genetics, Evolutionary Biology and Ecology.
“My classes are very student-centered, and individuals in my classes receive a very hands-on learning experience. While it is important to go over the information in the textbook, I expect my students to take charge of their learning and come to class prepared to ask questions,” she explained. “Students often underestimate how rigorous our science classes can be. Students need to spend time not only in class, but outside of class, to really learn the material. They need proper study skills and to not be afraid to ask questions.”
Outside the classroom, Shoff has incorporated field trips to Picnic Island, Six Mile Cypress Slough Preserve and Naples Zoo in an effort to expose students to nature. “I’m surprised by the number of students who don’t spent time outside in nature here,” she said. “I’m a believer that, in order to really get a student to care, they need to be exposed to something. That’s why I take them on these field trips, to expose them to nature.”
At Picnic Island, her Biology II students cast nets into sea grass and observe different species of sea life. “We don’t do experiments or anything like that. We are solely there to observe,” she explained.
Through this type of exposure, Shoff sees the interest her students are taking in the learning process. “One of the biggest rewards of my job is to hear students tell me they didn’t like science until they took of one of my classes,” she said.
Though working in academia, her ability to do research is limited, which is why when her friend from NSU, Neil Hammerschlag, contacted her about traveling to South Africa in August 2015 to be a part of documentary for Shark Week, she jumped at the opportunity. “By 3:00 a.m. each morning, we were at the boat waiting to head out,” she said. Shoff served as a spotter atop the boat, looking for seals when the decoy was not in use. Watching sharks breach the water at warp speed, she witnessed Mother Nature taking its course first hand.
Unfortunately, to the disappointment of Shoff and others on the boat, when the show aired on Discovery, the only two individuals seen on screen were Hammerschlag and shark expert Jeff Kurr. “I kept looking for myself when I watched the show, but they’d taken us out,” she laughed, and while she did not make her television debut, the experience was unforgettable.