Giving Back:
Derek A. Burkholder, Ph.D
by William J. Gallo

Giving Back: Derek A. Burkholder, Ph.D

If you have followed these articles for the past few years, it soon becomes apparent that Giving Back usually occurs when individuals who are actively engaged in a career feel a moral obligation to their community. However, once in a awhile there are unique individuals who approach Giving Back from a different perspective. They live, eat and breath it with no differentiation from their careers. In fact, I would propose that their entire professional/working life is a continuum of Giving Back and that, somehow, they have managed to have it provide for their subsistence. Derek A. Burkholder, Ph.D is one of these rare individuals.

Today Derek is Director of the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program, Founding Director of the Marine Environmental Education Center at the Historical Carpenter House on Hollywood Beach, A Nova Southeastern University, Halmos College of Arts & Sciences Research Scientist at the Oceanographic Center, and Vice President of the Non-Profit Educational Organization, Sharks4Kids, Inc. These are just his managerial positions; there is also a litany of grants, research, papers, presentations and affiliations with other organizations centered around understanding, pre-serving and educating all generations about our marine resources. South Florida’s marine resources are the underlying driver of our entire economy. People flock to Florida for tourism and lifestyle, both of which exist because of our marine resources. Therefore, it is safe to say that if we do not preserve them, and teach everyone about their value and what needs to be done in order to peacefully coexist with them, then it will only be a matter of time before we will extinguish these very resources.

Derek was born and raised in Mason, Michigan. As a child he spent most of his time in the outdoors on the lake fishing, camping and generally loving the natural environment. It was the place where he felt most at home and the place which sparked his curiosity about natural species. After high school he enrolled at Albion College and pursued his Bachelor of Arts in Biology with a concentration on the Environmental Sciences. While in the program he engaged with Dr. Jeff Carrier who was studying Nurse Shark reproduction in the Dry Tortugas, Florida Keys. This was Derek’s first encounter with the South Florida marine environment. During a summer internship at the National Geographic in Washington, DC he similarly met Dr. Mike Heithaus who eventually took a faculty position at FIU. Dr. Heithaus and Derek were successful in procuring a National Science Foundation Grant that ultimately funded Derek’s Ph.D project which was to work with sharks, turtles and seagrass in Shark Bay, Western Australia. With a newly minted Ph.D from FIU, Derek met and started working with Dr. Mahmood Shivji, whom we all know is the star of South Florida >and an internationally renowned scientist at NSU’s Halmos College, and Director of the Save our Seas Foundation Shark Research Center and the Guy Harvey Research Institute. Derek started his relationship with Dr. Shivji and Nova Southeastern University’s Guy Harvey Research Institute in 2013. These affiliations allowed Derek to launch a life devoted to his childhood dream of Giving Back, to the present and future populations, an appreciation and love for our local marine environment.

Giving Back: Derek A. Burkholder, Ph.D

In 2014 Derek was offered an opportunity to take over the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program, a program monitoring the sea turtle nesting beaches in Broward County for over 30 years. In 2016, Derek took on the role of building the Marine Environmental Education Center (MEEC) at the Carpenter House. This facility is a collaborative initiative between Nova Southeastern University and Broward County Parks Department. It was a win-win from day one. The County was able to historically certify the original Carpenter Home on Hollywood Beach, completely restore the facility to the original architectural jewel it was, and simultaneously create a home for the Marine Environmental Center. The facility would also be a major outreach to Broward County K 1-12 school children to teach them about the value of our marine environments and especially our major populations of sea turtles. Derek has built the Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program year after year since his takeover in 2014. In fact, last year Broward County had a record setting nesting season with over 4,200 sea turtle nests laid in the County. This is the highest number on record in the last 30 years while at the same time the County experienced the largest population of people in its history. These two statistics are living proof that conservation efforts and outreach can allow peaceful coexistence. The program that Derek ran from NSU is responsible for 24 miles of Broward County beaches where he and the staff monitor, preserve and ensure the continued success of turtle nesting. Florida beaches account for 90% of the nation’s sea turtle nesting and, when it comes to Loggerhead Sea Turtles, Florida beaches host 90% of the nesting population for North Atlantic Loggerhead Turtles nationally and 40% worldwide, the largest nesting Loggerhead population in the world. All of our Florida nesting turtle species, namely, Loggerhead, Green and Leatherback, are currently on the endangered or threatened species list. That is why Derek’s work is so important to Giving Back to our community.

Of personal import to Derek is his work with Sharks4Kids, Inc. Derek was a founding member and serves as its Vice President. Their mission is to educate students around the world about the importance of sharks globally. They provide curriculum that teachers can use in their classrooms to teach about sharks and provide opportunities to students to get into the natural environment side-by-side with sharks whether they be snorkeling, dive trips or research expeditions.

Giving Back: Derek A. Burkholder, Ph.D

Derek has been so successful at his community work that Nova Southeastern University recently appointed him as their Community Outreach Coordinator. As such he is free to collaborate with a network of scientists, educators, museums, conservation partners, non-profit organizations, governmental organizations, as well as business and industry leaders. His goal is to connect these individuals and organizations with the community to enhance education, research and conservation opportunities, ultimately, leading to engaging educational experiences for students, the general population and elected officials. This is Giving Back at a grand scale.

Giving Back: Derek A. Burkholder, Ph.DIn his spare time, he continues to volunteer at numerous environmental and conservation
organizations as well as publish scientific papers, present scientific papers and conduct meaningful research such as:

Volunteer at The Hub for Resilience Education Steering Committee at the Museum of Discovery and Science, where he serves as a member.
Volunteer at the Coastal Coalition/Economic Resilience of Broward County which is an arm of the Fort Lauderdale Chamber of Commerce, where he serves as a council member.
United States Geological Survey (USGS) where he serves as a research assistant and volunteer.
Presented Papers, Posters and Invited Seminars too numerous to mention.
29 Scientific Publications on shark and sea turtle biology.

What is a typical day in the life of Derek Burkholder? Well, in addition to being on the beach at dawn inspecting, protecting and monitoring turtle nests from his 4-wheel drive ATV, he might be out on the water in a vessel accompanying students or research scientists on catching, tagging and releasing sharks, or then we will find him at the Marine Environ-mental Education Center in the evening conducting outreach to our community on our turtle population followed by allowing the attendees to participate in a turtle hatchling release (if you haven’t done this you are really missing out on a wonderful experience).

I started with introducing Derek as a person who lives, eats and breathes his Community Giving Back. The real proof of this individual’s commitment is a one-on-one encounter, so the next time you have the energy to be at the beach at sunrise you just might see a lone ATV against the rising sun. This could be your chance to engage this marvelous individual. If you are an evening type, then consider a trip to Nova Southeastern University and the Marine Environmental Education Center and participate in a turtle release after dark with the NSU Broward County Sea Turtle Conservation Program and, if you are really adventurous, sign up for a mid-day shark tagging expedition.