SARASOTA, Fla. (Feb. 20, 2017) – Erin Petrino tends to a group of octopods and cuttlefish each morning. Sharla Rafferty analyzes the stomach contents of spotted eagle rays. And Sydney Whitlock examines the effects of pesticide poisoning on tiny crustaceans.
The three are USF Sarasota-Manatee students participating in an internship program at Mote Marine Laboratory in Sarasota. As they work alongside scientists to understand the impacts of human intrusion and how to better protect the seas, they’re also tackling another important life question: whether biology or a related field is the right fit for them.
USFSM provides 300 internships annually, from lab assistants to school teaching aides, in addition to hundreds of volunteer experiences and job leads to help students discern their career path.
Petrino, Rafferty and Whitlock are enrolled in the Mote Research Experience for Undergraduates -USFSM, an internship program tailored specifically to biology degree seeking students. USFSM supplies several such interns to Mote each semester. In addition to enjoying unique and fulfilling experiences, they gain career insights while building their resumes for graduate school or possible research jobs.
“I wanted to do something challenging, but also very rewarding,” said Petrino, who grew up in Sarasota and Clayton, N.C. “I’ve always loved science and have a passion for the environment.”
The 22-year-old junior knows she wants a career in biology, and through her internship she’s narrowing down exactly where she wants to land. Three biology-centric careers have caught her eye so far: lab technician, science teacher and biologist, the latter of which requires a graduate degree.
“I’m really contemplating doing something involving both chemistry and biology,” she said. “I’d love to be a biologist, working in the field, and would love to continue working at Mote.”
For now, she’s assisting Dr. Noam Josef by feeding and caring for octopods housed in several aquariums in a small laboratory. Dr. Josef is researching the creatures’ predatory habits and how they’re able to camouflage to their surroundings.
Using a large, separate tank and an overhead projector, he can project different color and geometric patterns onto the tank’s floor and analyze how the octopods respond and adapt to their changing environment.
Research into these camouflage mechanisms, or bio-chemical processes, Petrino said, could someday lead to the development of octopus-proof crab traps, which would benefit both trappers and the octopus.
“Erin is an enthusiastic learner and I like that about her,” he said.
Rafferty, a 29-year-old senior, likewise has designs on a biology career. She’s interested in conservation sciences and enjoys field and lab work.
For the time being, she’s working with Mote Senior Scientist Dr. Bob Hueter and Senior Biologist Kim Bassos-Hull to better understand the spotted eagle ray’s biology in and around Sarasota Bay. The International Union for Conservation of Nature considers spotted eagle rays to be near-threatened.
Native to tropical regions including the Gulf of Mexico, these large, winged animals use their snouts to uncover food buried in sand and their powerful jaws to crack open clams and crab and shrimp shells. By analyzing their diet, the scientists hope to better understand the importance of these food sources to the rays to better assist with their management.
Rafferty is helping the team by extracting DNA samples from the rays’ partially digested prey, packaging the samples and sending them to a testing lab to determine their diet. Indirectly, the work is affording her a window into the complex and often intricate world of field biologists.
“It’s interesting to learn about animals and their larger environment,” she said. “I could definitely see myself doing this as a career.”
Like other employers, Mote takes on several USF Sarasota-Manatee interns each semester. This current semester has nine interns at Mote, the most since 2014, while seven others worked there last semester. “Education is a huge piece of what we do and this program dovetails perfectly with our mission here at Mote,” Student Engagement Coordinator Gina Santoianni said.
Whitlock might have the most detailed and intricate job of all the interns: the feeding and care of small crustaceans that comprise the main diet of juvenile lobsters.
A quarter-inch long, these tiny translucent animals are used in aquatic toxicological-exposure studies to understand how they are affected by mosquito pesticides and how, in turn, juvenile lobsters that feed on the organisms are impacted as well.
The crustaceans are housed in rows of glass beakers at Mote’s eco-toxicology laboratory. Whitlock works with pipettes and other instruments to tend to the creatures. The four-year study by Senior Scientist Dr. Richard Pierce probes the effect of even trace amounts (parts per billion) of pesticide on the crustaceans and young lobsters.
Given the emphasis that Florida places on gulf shrimp and stone crabs, it might seem surprising to learn that, dollar for dollar, spiny lobsters count nearly as much to the state’s seafood industry.
According to the Florida Department of Agriculture and Consumer Services, lobster is second only to shrimp in annual dockside value. In 2015, shrimp catches produced $49.3 million in dockside value while lobster harvests yielded $47.8 million and stone crabs $36.6 million.
Whitlock, a 20-year-old junior, said she finds the intricate work at Mote fascinating. She plans to attend graduate school and anticipates studying zoology, although she admits to having an affinity for lab work.
“I just love being here and can’t say enough about this opportunity,” she said, adding that the semester-long experience confirmed her initial thoughts about biology as a career.
Dr. Pierce’s study, which will conclude this year, is funded by the Environmental Protection Agency, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission, the Florida Keys Mosquito Control District and various philanthropic organizations.
He had high praise for Whitlock. “She’s eager to learn and that’s what I like about her,” he said. “USFSM has very good students, and if they have good attitudes and want to learn, we will work with them.”