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Swimming with Sharks (and Stingrays)

CAS student chronicles internship Down Under


Internships play a critical role in job hunting as employers increasingly seek graduates with some real-world experience. A recent study by the Collegiate Employment Research Institute at Michigan State University found that employers hire about 50 percent of their interns as full-time employees. Here at BU, 93 percent of undergrads have had at least one internship before they graduate.  

BU Today reached out to Kate Donnellan (CAS’18) to learn what she was working on this past summer. Donnellan is a student in the BU Marine Program (BUMP) and is embarking on a third marine semester to complete her research on the queen conch (a large sea snail with a distinctive shell) in Belize. She also recently interned at an aquarium in New Zealand through BU Study Abroad and worked with two massive stingrays named Molly and Penny. We spoke with Donnellan about her internship experience Down Under.

Name:  Kate Donnellan (CAS’18)

My internship:

Interning at Kelly Tarlton’s Sea Life Aquarium in New Zealand for credit counted as a class. I worked there for five months. I was in the Auckland Internship Program through BU Study Abroad, so in addition to the internship, I took a calculus class, a chemistry course, and a New Zealand history class.

How I landed the internship:

BU students have had this internship in the past, so I was introduced to the aquarium’s fish manager, and it made it easy to talk about working there.

When I was in high school I worked at the scientific aquarium at Woods Hole.

A typical day on the job:

I got there around 6:30 or 7 in the morning. I fed a lot of the animals, so the first part of my day was preparing their food—I would shuck mussels for an hour and a half. I fed all of the interesting animals that people don’t get to see behind the scenes, like the rescue sea turtles. We would weigh them and make sure they were getting healthy.

Lots of animals eat mussels, like the elephant sharks, and we would toss out the shelled mussels to them. The elephant sharks look like they have trunks, and they suck up the shells and then eat the animal.

I would then move into the maintenance stuff and lead feeding shows throughout the day. I would get in the tank with the short-tail stingrays and elephant sharks and feed them while I talked to visitors. They would ask if the animals were dangerous, since everyone knows about Steve Irwin [killed by a short-tail stingray], and they were concerned about me being in there. But the stingrays aren’t dangerous and they aren’t aggressive.

Visitors would ask where stingrays and elephant sharks are found (the stingrays are found throughout New Zealand and Australia and the sharks swim in New Zealand waters), and if they are endangered (they’re not). The shows were the best part of the day.

We would also check the water temperature and do a systems check to make sure that everything was good. In the morning and the afternoon, one person would go through the entire aquarium to check the tanks’ water temperature and quality, that all fish were healthy, and that they didn’t show signs of being stressed. Because the aquarium was right on the water, in the afternoon we would go out and catch tiny shrimp to feed the seahorses.

It was intensive but cool, since you got to see the feeding and care processes from start to finish.

Career skills I acquired:

My dream job is to research out on the water. This summer, I tried to get out in the field as much as possible. I love to entertain people and work with animals that people think of as scary. I learned a lot of presentation skills and how to interact with the public.

What people might not know:

Animals have their own personalities, I actually did a final project paper on this. I kind of got put in charge of the aquarium’s octopus, and spent a lot of time with her. She would squirt ink if she wasn’t happy.

What the internship taught me about the real world:

It definitely gave me a lot of time management challenges, since I had to balance classes while taking the internship.

My proudest accomplishment:

I set goals for myself throughout the summer, like learning more about diving in the workplace. I dive with BUMP here, but I had never done it in a professional setting. I did a shark cage dive with the aquarium and saw sand tigers and seven gills sharks.

Overall grade and whether the internship lived up to my expectations:

A-, just because it ate up a ton of my time. It wasn’t well suited for someone who had a lot of classes. But the experiences were worth it. Who else can see, work with, and feed stingrays? I really can’t complain.

My advice for others seeking an internship:

Be enthusiastic and be passionate They saw that I was excited to be there and definitely responded by letting me do things they wouldn’t have let me do otherwise. Let that passion shine through.

What’s next:

I’m looking at grad schools right now, I want to get my master’s and do research as much as possible. I’d really like to study sharks, or I’d like to work in fisheries management.

I’m also doing another marine semester this fall to continue my research on the queen conch. I will work on two major studies: one on the distribution and abundance of the animal, and the second that will try to prove that the dwarf conch is a different species than the regular queen conch.

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Amy Laskowski

Amy Laskowski can be reached at amlaskow@bu.edu.

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