Handling the living and the dead: students intern at Museum of Natural History
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Fourth-years Brooke Eusebio and Stephen Howe have not been afraid to get their hands dirty (and wet) as they interact with marine life at their internships for Santa Barbara’s Museum of Natural History.
Eusebio, a biology major, works in the vertebrate labs of the museum. “The necropsy lab is where they bring animal specimens, like stranded, dead dolphins from the beach,” Eusebio explained. “We take data and samples for research and process specimens for display at the museum or for other educational purposes.” The event of a “dolphin autopsy” at the necropsy lab offers an opportunity for learning about beached marine mammals and turns their unfortunate fates into sites for research, conservation and preservation.
“Some of the things I do at the museum are more simple, and some are pretty crazy,” said Eusebio. Her work ranges from cataloguing and labeling various skeletal bones to organizing paperwork to preserving specimens in the “wet collection.”
“I sift through dolphin stomachs, searching for fish otoliths [ear bones] and squid beaks. These can be counted and identified to tell what kind of fish the dolphin was eating, and how much it ate,” Eusebio said. “I also cut samples of different organ tissues to send into the lab for analysis, where they look for things like heavy metals and dinoflagellate toxins.”
“The job is definitely smelly, gross and physical, so it's not for the faint-hearted,” said Eusebio. “But it's really fascinating to be able to look at an organism's remains to find out how it lived and died, and to be able to preserve specimens so people can view them in schools and museums.” Undeterred by what some might find the most repellent of tasks, Eusebio has learned how to flense (cut tissue off) dolphin skulls and otter skeletons in order to clean the bones for display. She also cleans sand, debris, gum tissue and pests from whale baleen.
“I think it's fascinating!” said Eusebio, an aspiring veterinarian. “The reason I wanted to do this internship was to learn more about this type of research and lab work, and to improve my anatomy and surgical skills. Although the animals I work with aren't alive, I have still learned a lot about them.”
Eusebio has appreciated the ways in which her Westmont marine biology class with Dr. Horvath has incorporated the classroom experience with her work at the museum. “I am also very fond of the fun, intelligent people I have gotten to know at the museum over the course of the semester,” said Eusebio. “Studying anything in nature is fascinating and being involved in the study of the sea offers insight into a world that we still are only beginning to understand.”
Fellow fourth-year Stephen Howe works at the Ty Warner Sea Center, a museum owned and operated by the Museum of Natural History on Santa Barbara’s historic Stearns Wharf. “The center is designed to teach people about marine ecosystems in an up-close and personal way,” Howe explained. “I am helping people interface with this environment by allowing them to touch some of the animals, like sharks and sea stars, while helping them ask questions that they can answer about the key features of the organisms and their importance to the environment.”
Howe has observed that allowing the public to interact with marine animals is both enjoyable and highly educational. “My favorite part of working at the sea center is teaching patrons about how to be scientists. We do this on the wet deck where we teach people how to use real tools that scientists are using every day. You never know what you may pull up out of the water and there's always a chance of finding something new.”
Howe’s work at the sea center has also inspired him to pursue new career goals. “The sea center has shown me that in addition to research, I really love teaching other people. Because of my work here, I’ve really opened up to the idea of becoming a professor.”