A Scientist’s Life: Dovi Kacev

Shark researcher schools students about marine ecosystems

Dovi Kacev is an assistant teaching professor at Scripps Institution of Oceanography. He received his bachelor’s degree in economics and biology with a minor in ocean sciences from UCLA in 2002. He received his PhD from a joint program in ecology between San Diego State University and UC Davis in 2015.


explorations now (en): What do you do for a living?

Dovi Kacev (DK): I am the luckiest scientist in the world because I get to work in Hubbs Hall where some of the most foundational marine biology work anywhere has been done. I get to work with undergraduate students here at Scripps, which is amazing. 

The main focus of my research is working with sharks and rays and trying to understand where they live, how they interact with their environment, and also how they move, when they move and why they might be moving.

I first got interested in sharks and rays because they're just really cool animals. There has been a lot of really interesting work on them in the past, but there are still a lot of unknowns and there's a lot of work that needs to be done in order for us to understand how they work, how they live in their environment, what their roles are, and also how we can support them and work towards their conservation and sustainability.


en: What are some of the main questions those in your field are trying to answer?

DK: A lot of what people are interested in my field to try to understand is where sharks can be found, when they can be found there, what environmental features might be influencing when they're found and where they're found and to get a better understanding of how they're generally interacting with their environment and the other species therein. 

Environments and ecosystems are complex. Sharks play different roles depending on the species within those environments. Sharks and rays are really interesting organisms. Some are the classic top predators that people think of, feeding on larger fish, maybe even marine mammals, but some of them are mesopredators, which means they’re feeding on smaller prey like crustaceans and mollusks and things like that. They really are a lot more diverse group of organisms than people give them credit for. 

Some of the more recent work that I've been working on has been looking at reproductive biology and behavior of sharks and rays. One of the things that we've been looking at is multiple paternity, which means that a single litter of sharks can include individuals that have different fathers. So a single litter of pups might have more than one father. And we're trying to get a better understanding of what may be the evolutionary drivers behind that pattern or that behavior.


en: What are the tools you use in your research?

DK: I use genetics to try to tell how individuals from different areas might be interacting as well as tagging them. Tags help understand where individuals are found and where they might be moving.

But a large portion of my research is actually using quantitative tools: sitting at a computer, taking data and analyzing those data, using computer software and other things to try to understand the data that are being collected.

As my role here is primarily teaching, I’m moving more and more toward that data analysis side of things. A lot of my time is spent in the classroom with amazing undergraduate students. I get to collaborate with colleagues who provide data to me and I can then crunch those data and start telling stories about the data they collect.

Some of the tools that I use to understand the distribution of organisms include genetic tools to understand how individuals in different areas might be interacting with one another, as well as tag technology to see where individuals are found and when. But a lot of the research that I'm doing now is actually based on quantitative tools.


en: You were originally an economics major. What got you into marine biology?

DK: At first when I studied economics, I thought it was just a practical major, a good fallback, but what I learned is that a lot of the models that we use to study the ocean and the environment are actually based on economic models. We can learn a lot from understanding basic economics and apply that to understanding ecosystems and the environment. 

For instance, if we think about where species are distributed in their environment, they're going to be found where resources are available to them. That's similar to we as human beings when we interact with society, we are found in areas where resources are available to us. We can co-opt that understanding of human behavior to understand organismal behavior.


en: What do you wish people understood about sharks?

DK: I think when people think of them, they normally have this perception of them being these hunting-killing machines. But in reality, these are organisms that are important for their ecosystems.

They have important value in fisheries, and there's really a lot to learn about how different species of shark and ray interact with their environments in different ways. Often sharks get a bad rap because when we hear about them, it's often after attacks and these really terrible negative interactions. But most of the time sharks are out in their environment doing things that sharks like to do, living shark lives, and they're doing their best to avoid interactions with human beings. My overall goal with research and with teaching is to make sure that future generations interact with the ocean with the same passion and interest as I do. And just really to make sure that the ocean and the people that utilize the ocean have a really bright future together. 


en: Why did you want to come to Scripps Oceanography?

DK: Working at Scripps is just a dream come true for me. I get to do my research in a place where some of the real original marine science and some of the basic science that helps us understand the ocean was conducted. I also get to work here in San Diego, which is a beautiful place to be, but mostly since I'm spending a good portion of my time teaching, I get to work with the most amazing undergraduate students on the planet, students that are really interested in the work that we're doing here at Scripps and are really passionate about the oceans and the animals therein as well as conservation of those environments. Being here at Scripps means we have the ocean as a classroom.

I get to take the students onto the pier then take the students into the tide pools and onto the beach to not just learn about marine environments, but experience them in real time. 

Sign Up For
Explorations Now

explorations now is the free award-winning digital science magazine from Scripps Institution of Oceanography. Join subscribers from around the world and keep up on our cutting-edge research.