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Young Student Pursues Career Thanks to Zoos and Aquariums

Larissa-Michel-with-Jay-and-Others

Larissa Michel’s love for marine animals started with childhood visits to aquariums and zoos in her Michigan hometown and nearby city of Chicago. Far from ocean access, accredited facilities like the Chicago Zoological Society’s (CZS) Brookfield Zoo provided her with access to see and learn about marine life up close. These important educational opportunities inspired her to pursue a career caring for and protecting marine wildlife.

Many zoo, aquarium and marine park visits later, the 17-year-old high school senior is now on a path to become a marine mammal expert herself.

This year, Larissa gave her second presentation at the prestigious International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine (IAAAM) conference where she caught the attention of three luminary marine mammal experts, Dr. Jay Sweeney (Dolphin Quest), Dr. Forrest Townsend (Bayside Hospital for Animals) and Dr. Randall Wells (CZS/SDRP/Mote Marine Laboratory). They were so impressed by Larissa’s presentation and passion for marine science that they invited her to attend the Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP) in Florida, which is the world’s longest-running health assessment of a wild dolphin population. Dr. Sweeney is the senior veterinarian for the SDRP, and his company, Dolphin Quest, sponsored Larissa’s participation.

This invitation could be seen as serendipitous for Larissa, since the SDRP is supported by the CZS Brookfield Zoo. Since 1989, the CZS has led the SDRP partnership, providing an administrative home for the long-term program and support for ongoing program operations, including the CZS employees who form the core program staff.

The following is a Q&A with Larissa about the impressive start of her journey pursuing her passion to become a marine mammal veterinarian:

What sparked your interest in the ocean and marine mammals?

My interest in the ocean and marine mammals began upon my first visit with my parents to Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium when I was less than two years old. I loved the animals so much that I didn’t want to leave!

Did your local zoo or aquarium play a part in your early connection to marine animals?

I live in the metro Detroit area. I visited the Detroit Zoo multiple times per week when I was young, and it certainly helped spark my interest in animals, veterinary medicine, and the natural world. Additionally, I vividly remember visiting the Belle Isle Aquarium just before they closed, and I remember being amazed at the diversity of the fish. The electric eel especially impressed me!

What other Zoos and Aquariums have you visited before?

I have been to 18 different zoos, aquariums and marine parks including the CZS/Brookfield Zoo, Dolphin Research Center and the Georgia Aquarium to name a few. All of these experiences furthered my love for animals and aquatic organisms.

I visited Brookfield Zoo during the 2015 IAAAM Conference in Chicago. The most amazing part of the experience was the opportunity to visit the veterinary facilities; the tour inspired me to want to possibly work as a marine mammal veterinarian someday!

What attracted you to the IAAAM conference, and what led you to present a poster there?

My journey to joining IAAAM is an interesting one! For my 13th birthday, my parents took me on a trip offered by Shedd to Churchill, Manitoba (in Canada) during August to see wild beluga whales and their calves! The Churchill River serves as an estuary for mothers and young calves during July and August, so the waters were full of belugas! Our tour guide was Ken Ramirez (at the time, the Head of Animal Care & Training at Shedd). I talked with him extensively about my interests and his career, and upon returning, he introduced me to Dr. Bill Van Bonn, one of Shedd’s veterinarians (and currently Shedd’s Vice President of Animal Health). It was Dr. Van Bonn who suggested that I should attend the 2015 IAAAM conference in Chicago.

I was the youngest person there (at the time, a freshman in high school), but I didn’t mind! I absolutely loved learning about all of the new research happening in the field of aquatic animal medicine; in fact, I took so many notes that I used up an entire pad of legal-sized paper! Because of this experience, I decided that I wanted to contribute to that community of research.

The next year (Virginia Beach 2016), I presented a poster about my experiences at the previous year’s conference as IAAAM’s first high schooler. That got my feet wet with presentation skills, but I wanted to have “real research”, as I called it, to present at the next conference. Fast forward to the summer of 2017, when I was able to get enough time to do original research by analyzing recordings from the Watkins Marine Mammal Sound Database (more on this later). In addition to submitting the abstract for the 2018 IAAAM Conference in Long Beach, CA, I was able to use this research to fulfill a requirement for my IB (International Baccalaureate) Diploma. I was ecstatic when my abstract was accepted for a poster presentation!

Is it correct that you were one of the only attendees and presenters who was still in high school?

I was IAAAM’s first high school attendee, and also the first high schooler to present a poster there! At times, it was difficult to connect with the other conference attendees because of differences in age, experience, and education, but I always tried to strike up conversations about cetaceans, veterinary medicine, music, and career experiences. Their knowledge, experience, and willingness to talk to me gave me new perspectives on research and aquatic animal medicine, as well as opportunities that await me once I begin my undergraduate education.

What was your poster session about, and why was that topic important to you?

The poster that I presented in May 2018 was entitled “Geographic Variation in the Vocalization Frequencies of the North Atlantic Subpopulations of the Beluga Whale (Delphinapterus leucas) and Its Possible Relationship to Anthropogenic Noise”. Knowing that cetaceans’ primary sense is their hearing, and that belugas especially are quite vocal, I was concerned about the effects of increasing levels of oceanic anthropogenic noise caused by increasing shipping traffic, oil drilling, and other sources of manmade activity upon belugas’ vocalizations and communication. I don’t have the resources to go out in the field and obtain recordings of beluga vocalizations, so I used the beluga recordings on the Woods Hole Oceanographic Institution’s (WHOI) free Watkins Marine Mammal Sound Database (https://cis.whoi.edu/science/B/whalesounds/index.cfm) for my study.

I analyzed the spectrograms of these recordings for average format value (essentially, the average fundamental frequency of the sound), and calculated differences between locations, and whether these differences were statistically significant. They were! Because of the potential implications of this research for beluga health and conservation of the underwater acoustic environment, I want to do further research on this subject with newer recordings.

Did your passion for music play any part in your interest in studying Beluga vocalization sounds?

My passion for music definitely plays a part in my interest in studying beluga vocalizations! In this field of study, I am able to combine my loves for music and cetaceans in a way that could aid conservation efforts; I am extremely happy to be able to do this!

Did you make any notable connections at the IAAAM meeting that opened up opportunities for you within the marine mammal field? If so, who?

I made many notable connections at IAAAM. I met Dr. Jay Sweeney (Dolphin Quest), Dr. Forrest Townsend (Bayside Hospital for Animals), and Dr. Randall Wells (CZS/SDRP/Mote Marine Laboratory), who, after seeing my poster presentation, together invited me to participate in this year’s annual Sarasota Bay Dolphin Health Assessment Project (part of the larger Chicago Zoological Society’s Sarasota Dolphin Research Project).

What was that experience like and why is that longest running health assessment of a wild dolphin population important from your perspective?

My experience in Sarasota was incredible! It was unlike anything I had previously experienced, and I discovered that I love field research as much as I love acoustic research! During the week, I was able to learn to spot and identify dorsal fins, assist with the in-water captures, help hold the dolphins for various medical procedures, meet world-famous researchers, watch procedures onboard Flip (the boat onto which the dolphins were lifted for x-rays, morphology measurements, etc.), join the crew of Nai’a for focal follows and vocalization playback studies, witness the groundbreaking cardiac ultrasound studies, and become part of the team. I gained a lot of practical experience, as well as wisdom from Dr. Sweeney, Dr. Townsend, Dr. Wells and many other professionals!

I think that the SDRP is important because it has collected, and continues to collect, large amounts of data on the health status of a well-known and well-characterized wild bottlenose dolphin population.

These data and their analyses help us better understand this amazing mammal and serve as a reference to which other populations can be compared in order to identify health problems and possible environmental hazards. This is extremely valuable to researchers looking to compare animal health data from poorly-documented populations to “normal” values. This program is unparalleled anywhere in the world.

I would like to thank Dr. Jay Sweeney and Dolphin Quest for their generous sponsorship of my participation in the June 2018 Sarasota Dolphin Research Program Health Assessment, allowing me to pursue a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity!

What’s next for you? Where do you see yourself in 5-10 years?

I will be attending both Oberlin College and Oberlin Conservatory in Oberlin, OH this fall, and plan to continue studying both science and music, respectively, with a goal of obtaining a Bachelors of Science degree in Biology and a Bachelors of Music degree in Violin Performance. While there, I plan to continue doing acoustical research in my free time and apply for (and hopefully obtain) cetacean/aquatic animal research internships during the summers. After that, I plan to attend graduate school. Once I have completed my studies, I hope to become a pioneer in cetacean acoustics or medicine, with a passion for conservation efforts; in addition, I hope to continue performing on my violin, which brings joy to me and to other people as well.

Why do you think it is important for young people to get involved in studying marine mammals?

I think that humans still have so much to learn from marine mammals! The current generation of professionals has set high standards and developed a solid foundation, but young people are the ones with the opportunities to do new groundbreaking research and advance conservation efforts. Marine mammology is a very niche field, with a close-knit community of researchers and health professionals; a new generation with fresh ideas, lots of optimism, ingenuity, and passion could take conservation, research, and medicine to the next level!

I hope that young people can use my story as inspiration to follow their passions. It’s important and beneficial to get involved early! Make connections with people, and don’t be afraid to approach and talk to the leading experts, as they possess great wisdom and knowledge. Developing your knowledge will help you discover whether this is a good career choice for you, as well as unlock once-in-a-lifetime opportunities that would otherwise be unavailable until after undergraduate or graduate education. It takes a lot of hard work, as well as courage, to create opportunities for yourself, but these will prove invaluable to your education, networking, career, and passion.