Tracy Romano, Ph.D.
Chief Scientist, Biologist, Mystic Aquarium,
University of Connecticut/Avery Point
This biologist who studies whales from the top of the world recalls the lab she built in her basement as a child.
After Tracy received her Ph.D., she applied for a National Research Council Fellowship so she could work at the Navy Research Lab in San Diego. But this time it was Tracy who had a knowledge gap: she didn’t know the molecular biology she knew she would need to go further with her immune system research. So she applied for her postdoctoral fellowship not only to work with the Navy, but to work with Scripps Research Institute and learn from their expertise in molecular biology. The message: find ways to fill gaps for others— and find others to help you fill your own.
Being an exchange student of any kind provides a window into new worlds, and also a mirror to reflect on yourself and how you respond to new experiences. It’s even more impactful when your exchange is with people who share something with you. Tracy’s exchange program began when she invited Alaska Native students from Point Lay to visit Mystic Aquarium, in Connecticut. To help them feel a sense of connection, and to involve her own local community, she reached out to southeastern Connecticut’s Mashantucket Pequot and asked them to participate and help to host the visitors. Later, young people from the Mashantucket Pequot made the trip to Point Lay. Recently another indigenous group, the Narragansett of nearby Rhode Island, joined the exchange. The groups share culture, sports, and community — and visit each other’s homes and home towns.
How to find a program? Start at GoAbroad.com
Consider the information in this article from U.S. News and World Report about student exchange programs to the U.S., and how the J-1 Visa can help make them more affordable:
Merit-based scholarships for American students to study abroad. features such programs as Youth Ambassadors, the Congress-Bundestag Youth Exchange (Germany), Future Leaders Exchange Abroad, or FLEX (Poland, Georgia, Kazakhstan), and the Kennedy-Lugar Youth Exchange and Study or YES program (Middle East, Africa, Asia, Southeastern Europe).
Extra: a poster about the Point Lay-Mystic Aquarium Educational and Culture Exchange.
Mystic is the only aquarium that is a Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU site, specifically targeting Native Americans and Alaska Natives. The program brings 10 students to the Aquarium each summer. Find our more about Mystic Aquarium’s program here.
Are We Welcome?
Tracy went to work with Dr. Robert Suydam, the wildlife biologist for Alaska’s North Slope Borough, and became aware that in order to learn more about beluga (or any animal there) she would have to go through their stewards, Alaska Natives such as the Iñupiaq community at Point Lay. “It’s all about respect,” she says. “That is their land. We ask permission to even come to Point Lay in the first place, and they have every right to say no. That’s one thing, but then it’s also another thing to get permission to take from their food.” She explains, “Literally, it’s their harvest, but they’re allowing [Robert and I] to go in and take samples from their food source (belugas) and their food security.” The outcome has been mutual respect. “They try to understand what we’re doing and why we’re doing it. They want to make sure the whales are healthy as we do."
The Point Lay hunters help the scientists round up and tag whales (in order to monitor their movements and their body systems).The community is also involved in the scientists’ research, not only helping them get the samples they need, but asking specific questions about their work. “And then we can do science to answer their questions.” The upshot is a shared understanding of the health of the wild population, thanks to the research there and at Mystic Aquarium.
“They’re interested, for example, in body condition in the whales, asking why are they thinner or why is their skin yellow. They might ask about different worms that they’re seeing in the whales…If they’re compromised, how are they compromised?"
A Public Argument
One of the most challenging aspects of Tracy’s work is communicating with people who want to shut down the aquarium on the principle that animals should not be kept in captivity. This came to a head when a group of beluga that were in a substandard facility in Canada were sent to Mystic for proper care. “We came under attack from animal rights activists,” Tracy says, adding that the public nature of the disagreement was unfortunate for many reasons. “We are learning all we can from the animals in our care, and contributing to their sustainability in the wild.” So many people learn from Mystic's belugas, and experiencing the belugas at the Aquarium can translate to helping their conservation in the wild. “We’re doing good science, doing a good thing for the animals.”
When Tracy received a fellowship from the Navy to work with dolphins and whales all summer, she was in heaven. “There was a pathology lab full of dolphin brains to study, and live animals right there. I mean — I didn’t want to go to grad school after that.” But her mentor, Dr. Sam Ridgway, put things in perspective and encouraged Tracy to take the long view. “He said, ‘Well, Tracy, we need you to go to grad school because we don’t know anything about stress and the immune system in dolphins.” By giving Tracy a view of what he thought she could contribute to the field, he urged her to keep studying at the University of Rochester. Summers in San Diego at the lab kept the carrot before the donkey — while Tracy got the grounding she needed to have the most impact.