Yamilla Samara is not afraid to swim with the sharks. In fact, she’s currently studying the diets of juvenile white sharks off the coast of Southern California as a graduate student at Cal State Long Beach. And this weekend, audiences across the country have a chance to see her at work.
Samara, as well as her scientific undertakings, will be featured in a TV segment Saturday morning for a CBS show called Mission Unstoppable, hosted by i-Carly’s and Despicable Me’s Miranda Cosgrove.
Born and raised in Managua, Nicaragua, Samara’s love for sea life came at an early age. A lake in Nicaragua with access to the ocean was once teeming with bull sharks, but overfishing eventually drove the species to extinction at the lake. The tale always troubled Samara, which fueled her desire to study sharks.
“There’s so much we don’t know about them,” Samara said.
Samara moved to the United States in 2016 to study at the Florida International University. She enrolled as a graduate student at CSULB and completed her first year there this spring.
Last summer, Mission Unstoppable’s producers reached out to CSULB Shark Lab director and marine biology professor Chris Lowe to spotlight some of the women who work in scientific fields. Lowe suggested Samara as well as her classmate Emily Spurgeon.
The crew followed Samara and Spurgeon on a research project off the coast of Santa Barbara. Samara is focusing on understanding the dietary habits of juvenile white sharks. To do this, she is implementing a technique that doesn’t require opening the stomach of a dead shark—as was the norm before, she says.
🦈 Marine biologist @YamillaSamara studies juvenile white #sharks & how their diets may play a role in which beaches they're attracted to! @CSULBsharklab pic.twitter.com/5GrUsoHvIE— Mission Unstoppable (@CBSUnstoppable) May 13, 2021
Using a specialized fishing spear, Samara takes small tissue samples of live sharks to study their carbon and nitrogen levels.
All living things that don’t make their own food, such as plants, are composed of carbon and nitrogen. The carbon levels help determine the surroundings of where the shark is feasting. High carbon levels show that the shark hunts prey closer to shore, while lower levels indicate that the shark hunts farther out at sea.
Nitrogen levels help Samara understand the size of the shark’s prey. Lower levels of nitrogen in the shark’s tissue samples indicate small prey, while higher levels mean large prey.
There’s so much more to Samara’s complex studies, but explaining it at the most basic level helps her work reach more audiences.
When the show airs, Samara hopes she can inspire the next generation of women scientists. She said most of her professors in her undergraduate marine biology studies were White American or European men. As she’s progressed through her studies, and through the years, she’s seen more women of color, and that’s something she’s happy about.
“The only person stopping you is yourself,” Samara said.
Mission Unstoppable airs on KCBS, channel 2 for most providers, on Saturday at 8 a.m.
Editor’s note: This article was updated to correct the spelling of Emily Spurgeon’s name.