Tracy Romano

Senior Vice President of Research & Zoological Operations
Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration

General Career Information... 

What is your educational background?
I have a B.S. in Biology and a Ph.D. in Anatomy/Neurobiology.

How did you end up in the field you are in today?
I’ve always had a fascination with the dolphin brain. I was advised to get a broad background in neurobiology and then later on apply it to studying dolphins. While in college I applied for a job in a neuroscience laboratory at the University of Rochester’s School of Medicine and Dentistry. My supervisor, Dr. David Felten, pioneered the field of neuroimmunology and studying how stress affects the immune system and health. He suggested that I get a Ph.D. in neurobiology working in his laboratory and to then apply what I had learned about stress and the immune system to the study of marine mammals. He suggested I apply for an American Society for Engineering Education fellowship (related to research of the Navy) for my graduate training since stress and the impacts on the immune system are important for the Navy to understand when sending personnel into battle.

I received the fellowship which paid for my graduate education. A big bonus was that the Navy wanted its research fellows to study in the Navy’s research and development labs during the summer months. I was looking over the research offered (most of which I didn’t understand) when I saw information on Dr. Ridgway, a neurobiologist in San Diego who studied dolphin neuroanatomy and behavior. I called him immediately and asked if I could work in his laboratory during the summer. As it turned out, I ended up spending all the summers of my graduate career in San Diego studying marine mammals. Dr. Ridgway indicated that we really needed information on the dolphin immune system since there was hardly any information available. For my doctoral thesis I studied “Neural-immune interactions in the beluga whale.” We were able to get blood samples from Navy belugas and collect tissues from subsistence hunted belugas in Alaska.

To learn molecular biology I was able to work in collaboration with Dr. Vito Quaranta at the Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. For my postdoctoral work (postdoc), I received a National Research Council Fellowship to continue this work and carried this out at both the Navy lab and Scripps. After my postdoc, I was able to secure my own funding (1 million dollars over 5 years) to establish a marine mammal neuroimmunology laboratory at the Navy facility and continue the work. I think the key here was making opportunities, recognizing them, and making the most of them.

What are some of the different career opportunities associated with the work you do?
I think there are a lot more opportunities for students these days. My field is very competitive, but I believe in the saying, “Where there is a will there is a way.” Summarizing the options I would say: 1) going to graduate school to pursue a master’s degree or doctorate; 2) working in industry, 3) working in biotechnology; 4) teaching; 5) working as a scientific writer and/or illustrator; 6) working in an aquarium in areas of research, exhibits, or education; 7) working in wildlife management or government positions.

What advice would you give to kids who are interested in studying science?
Follow your passion—whatever you love! Make your own opportunities, never give up, and surround yourself with the best of people!

On Belugas…

How and where do you conduct your work on belugas?
I do research on belugas in Churchill, Manitoba, Northwest Territories, Canada, and Point Lay, Alaska. When I needed a source of whale tissues to carry out the investigations, I learned that belugas are still hunted for subsistence. After jumping through many bureaucratic and logistical hurdles I received permission to be on hand during sanctioned hunts to collect the samples I needed for the research. This brought me to work with native people in Churchill and Point Lay.

What tools and/or technologies do you use in your work on belugas?
Most of the tools and technologies are specific diagnostic tests (most of which we had to develop) to assess the health of the animals. We do blood analyses, flow cytometry (which tells us how well cells are functioning), special tests to determine disease exposure, and satellite tracking

What research projects related to belugas have you worked on in the past?
1. Developing tests and reagents (chemicals used in a laboratory tests or experiments) to asses the health of belugas
2. Studying beluga anatomy and physiology
3. Studies looking at how exposure to loud sound affects the health or immune system of belugas
4. Studying the immune system of belugas at the molecular and cellular levels

What research projects related to belugas are you currently involved in?
1. Health assessments of wild belugas in Bristol Bay and the Chukchi Sea, Alaska
2. Beluga reproduction studies
3. Studies of physiology, vocalizations, and behavior during specific events such as transport, different social groupings, etc.
4. Immune system investigations and the developing of tests to assess immune function and health

What have you learned so far from your research?
1. The immune system of belugas is similar in many ways to the human immune system, but it does have some unique differences at the anatomical, cellular, and molecular levels.
2. The wild whales we have examined to date are healthy.
3. Belugas have unique cellular immune differences from other dolphins/whales.

Why is it important to study belugas?
It is important to study belugas because they are an indicator species; their health has implications for human health; they are a unique animal with adaptations to the Arctic environment; and learning more about them can help us better conserve them.

What threats are currently facing belugas?
Some threats include climate change, oil and gas exploration and drilling, tourism, fisheries changes, shipping, and oil spills.

How is climate change affecting belugas and their habitats?
A few ways climate change is affecting belugas is through changing ice patterns and the distribution and abundance of prey.

How do native communities interact with and depend on belugas?
Native communities have a great deal of respect for the belugas and are very supportive of the research we are trying to accomplish. They help us with tagging and finding the whales. Belugas are very much a food source for the people as well as being an important part of their culture, traditions, and spiritual life. The whales also help bring the community together through things like the communal hunt.

What kind of collaborations with native communities have you participated in?
The research collaboration has been the most important. Now with my position at the Aquarium I am working on an educational exchange program where the students of Point Lay will help us in the field with our research and then come back to Mystic Aquarium and spend some time in the laboratory learning about the analyses and our findings. Working with the village of Point Lay has been very rewarding and adds a whole new dimension to the science. The community of Point Lay and our work there was featured in a Jean Michel Cousteau special entitled Sea Ghosts which showed on PBS and is available for viewing online. The program focused on belugas, climate change, and how scientists and natives work together. My collaborators and native friends are interviewed and I can be spotted bleeding the whale and working in the background.

Why is it important to do research in the Arctic in general and about belugas specifically?
The Arctic is a unique ecosystem—full of resources and wildlife. We need to be able to utilize the resources without destroying the wildlife, land, and ecosystem. The Arctic is also important place for the study of climate change.

What is the most interesting or exciting thing that has happened during your research?
The most interesting thing has been the meeting fascinating people and traveling to interesting places. Seeing the animals in the wild is also very exciting!

What follow-up research related to belugas would you like to do in the future?
I would like to continue investigating the holistic response to stress and the environment in belugas by studying their physiology, vocalizations, and behavior. Studying all of these things at the same time will help me get a full picture of the response of belugas to stress and the environment. I would also like to continue to investigate health in wild belugas before and after climate change and oil and gas exploration. I would like to compare different populations in different locations. Finally, I would like to do further investigations of the impact of loud sounds on the immune system and health of the whales.

What actions can kids take to help protect belugas and their habitats?
Become biologists, wildlife managers, or teachers! Get actively involved in protecting the environment; write letters; and participate in “green” practices at home.

On the Arctic…

What are the most common misconceptions that people have about living or working in the Arctic?
A common misconception is that it is cold all the time. It can be warm in the summer.

What do you like the best about doing work in the Arctic?
The best part about being in the Arctic is working with the people—the scientists and native people who live in the Arctic. Experiencing all of the wildlife is also a highlight.

What do you like the least about doing work in the Arctic?
The mosquitoes! Also, the Arctic is far away and getting there takes a long time (two days!).

What changes—if any—have you noticed in the Arctic during the time you have been working there?
I have noticed warmer temperatures in the summer, different sightings of wildlife and plant life, and differences in the timing of natural events.

What one thing would you most like kids to learn from studying the Arctic?
The Arctic is an extreme and beautiful environment that must be preserved and protected.

On Being a Kid…

What kinds of books did you like to read when you were a kid? Why?
I liked reading Nancy Drew books because I liked trying to solve the mysteries!

What was your favorite subject when you were in middle school?
Science was my favorite subject in middle school, but it was actually a first-grade teacher who inspired my interest in biology. I remember setting up a science laboratory in my basement that contained my rock, shell, and birds’ nest collections, maps of the moon, chemistry set, weather station, etc. I have always had a fascination with the dolphin brain and have always wondered how intelligent dolphins really are.

What did you think you were going to be when you grew up?
I thought I would be a doctor, veterinarian, or scientist.

On the Rest of Life…

Who are some of the people you look up to or admire?
I look up to my college cross-country coach, parents, and Walt Disney!

What do you like to do for fun?
I enjoy biking, hiking, running, watching movies, music, and spending time with my dog, family, and friends.

Do you have any final thoughts or words of advice that you would like to share?
Follow your dreams, never give up, and believe in yourself. Also, when trying to achieve your goals, remember the 4 D’s: discipline, dedication, determination and desire. Perhaps most important is desire— you have to want to make your goal happen and surround yourself with the best of people!

JASON Learning: A Partnership of Sea Research Foundation and National Geographic