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Kara Yopak

Kara Yopak has always known exactly what she wanted to be when she grew up.

“I was that kid who announced one day that she would be an ichthyologist who studies sharks,” said Yopak, a neuroscientist and assistant professor in the Department of Biology and Marine Biology. “My passion for it has never wavered.”

Yopak is interested in the evolution of neural systems, particularly in how brain size and formation varies across sharks and their relatives. To study these processes in depth, Yopak has accumulated an impressive collection of samples. Her lab currently houses more than 400 brains from 180 different species of sharks, including a two-headed shark embryo.

“Because I have seen so many brains, I can actually be predictive about shark behavior,” said Yopak. “I can estimate where it lives, how fast it swims, what it eats – it’s really weird and wonderful.”

While Yopak has been researching sharks for decades, something that’s still new to her is the role of UNCW educator.

“As a new faculty member, everything is new and challenging and, admittedly, sometimes intimidating, so I can relate to what my students feel when they walk into the classroom,” said Yopak, who joined the faculty for the spring 2017 semester. “What excites me the most is finding a way to make the day’s topic accessible. There is always that moment where the concept clicks and you can see the dawning comprehension on the students’ faces. I live for that moment every day, every class.”

Yopak is impressed with the level of student engagement in the lab.

“UNCW is unparalleled in offering undergraduates hands-on experiences in the lab, allowing them to work side by side with professors,” she said. “I am proud to work at a university that prioritizes applied learning opportunities at all levels. Gaining that type of experience helps our students hone their skills and cement their passion for a future career.”

Yopak believes it’s important to be true to yourself and create a lasting legacy, both of which she is happy to say she’s actively doing.

“I pinch myself every day that I get to do what I love, work with the people I do and educate the next generation of scientists,” she said. “I think we all should do at least one thing in our lives that outlives us. Science is mine.”

Philanthropic gifts to the Marine Science Support Fund contribute to outstanding research underway at UNCW.

-- Christina Schechtman