Careers in Conservation: Veterinary Science

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Careers in Conservation: Veterinary Science

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Guest Blog by Alex McDermott
Associate Veterinarian at Georgia Aquarium

As part of her journey in becoming a veterinarian, Alexa participated in an EPI internship in 2003 at Pacuare Nature Reserve in Costa Rica. Like many who have visited the Reserve, Alexa’s time there solidified her resolve to be a part of the solution – to help vulnerable wildlife and to conserve biodiversity wherever she could.

About a year ago, we got to catch up with Alexa in Costa Rica during the filming of Georgia Aquarium’s Ocean Mysteries with Jeff Corwin, a special episode on EPI’s work with sea turtles and local youth. We asked Alexa to share information about her job, how it contributes to conservation science, and what path she took to get there – a good story for anyone interested in a career in conservation.

The Education, Internships, and Adventures to Become a Marine Veterinarian

When I was 8 years old, my family visited an amusement park that had a dolphin show. After seeing that show, I was hooked on anything that involved the ocean, and I knew that I wanted to work with aquatic animals. Every report I wrote in school was about the ocean and what steps people could take to help conserve aquatic animals and their environment. As an undergraduate I attended the University of Kansas and graduated with a BS in Organismal Biology and a BA in Spanish. Since I was land-locked in Kansas, I knew that I had to work extra hard to gain experience with marine biology. I worked on data entry for a lab that studied deep-sea anemones. I took summer school classes in Hawaii and studied abroad in Costa Rica for a semester. For three summers during my undergraduate studies, I volunteered for an Earthwatch program in Mexico. The program focused on sea turtle ecology and conservation and involved catching, tagging, and tracking sea turtles. In addition to the field work, I also created an environmental education class for the local students and taught classes once a week.

Between undergraduate and graduate school I participated in an internship with EPI at Pacuare Nature Reserve in Costa Rica and got to work with the local students, students from the US, and leatherback sea turtles. After my internship, I attended graduate school at Florida Atlantic University and studied sea turtle navigation. Unfortunately, my study site got destroyed by three hurricanes in one year. I was unable to complete my master’s degree and decided to make a change and apply to veterinary school with hopes of becoming an aquatic animal veterinarian. I attended the University of Florida completed an aquatic animal certificate program and an international certificate program. To fulfill requirements for these programs, I completed rotations in several zoos and aquariums and traveled to Honduras and Chile to work with local wildlife. After I graduated from UF, I completed a small animal rotating internship at two different specialty hospitals. In 2011, I started as an intern veterinarian at the Georgia Aquarium. I stayed at the aquarium to complete a fellowship and was then offered an Associate Veterinarian position in 2014.

As a veterinarian, my job is to take care of all of the animals at the aquarium. By caring for animals in the aquarium, we have the chance to continuously monitor animals in a way that is not possible when viewing animals in the wild. We can perform bloodwork, radiographs, ultrasounds, and other diagnostics to learn about anatomy, physiology, and reproduction of many different species. The information we learn can be used to help manage and conserve wild populations. Recently, in conjunction with the Guy Harvey Research Institute, I participated in multiple stingray health assessments in the Cayman Islands. My research focused on their reproduction, and I performed ultrasounds on about 100 stingrays. This population of stingrays suffered a population decline a few years ago. We hope that our findings will shed light on the overall health of the population, as well as offer some information that will inform conservation of this population so that they will be around for many years to come.

For those interested in pursuing a job in conservation, I think it’s important to remember that not everyone gets to be a field biologist and that much of the required work is often writing, looking for grant money, and spreading the word about conservation. It is not a glamorous field, and oftentimes people make very little money and spend lots of time away from their friends and family. On the positive side, this field offers experiences that others do not, like being face to face with endangered species that really need our help. Even if you do not become a biologist, you can be a conservationist by spreading the word about endangered species, habitat loss, and actions we can all take to make the world a better place.

Follow Alexa’s advice.
Help protect 5% of the world’s biodiversity and part of the world’s fourth most important nest beach for leatherback sea turtles, Pacuare Nature Reserve.
Please donate and spread the word!

Alumni, Conservation