an e-newsletter for students and alumni of saint michael's biology department

Alumni Profile
Dr. Tracy Romano '86




  Dr. Tracy Romano with tagged beluga whale.
Dr. Tracy Romano '86 is the Senior Vice President for Research and Zoological Operations at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in Mystic, CT.

The Biology Department asked Dr. Romano a series of questions to illustrate how her choices, decisions, and persistence blazed her trail her from a Saint Michael’s College biology student to prominent marine biologist.

What sparked your initial interest in biology, and what eventually lead you into marine biology and your current line of research?

It was a first-grade teacher that inspired my interest in biology. At that age, 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 they really are. During the senior research seminar at Saint Michael's, I gave my presentation on dolphins and since then have taken every opportunity to study them.

What about your experiences at Saint Michael's College prepared you for your career?

In my coursework I learned to make solutions that we use in the laboratory and the scientific method. In senior seminar I learned how to write an abstract, summary, give presentations, etc.

Running cross-country taught me about setting and achieving goals, and also taught me that anything is achievable with determination, discipline, dedication and if you want it bad enough. I still utilize what I learned in cross-county today in carrying out my job. I advise Saint Michael's students to be well rounded and get involved in other activities in addition to academics.

From your experience, are there any steps you took on your career path that specifically launched your success?

While in college I applied for a job in a neuroscience laboratory at the University of Rochester, School of Medicine and Dentistry. My supervisor, Dr. David Felten, pioneered the field of neuroimmunology and studying how stress impacts 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 on 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 and the bonus or big break was that they wanted their 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) and then 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 was able to study “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, CA. For my 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 over 5 years) to establish a marine mammal neuroimmunology laboratory at the Navy facility and continue this work. I think the key here was making opportunities, recognizing them, and making the most of them.

Are there unusual or unconventional paths you have followed that turned out to be particularly rewarding?

Yes. When I needed a source of whale tissues to carry out the investigations, I learned that belugas are still hunted by natives 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, Manitoba, the Northwest Territories, Canada, and Point Lay Alaska.

Now with my position at the aquarium I am working on an educational exchange program where the students of Point Lay 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 this village has been very rewarding and adds a whole dimension to the science. Point Lay and our work in Point Lay was featured in a Jean Michel Cousteau special entitled: “Sea Ghosts” which premieres on PBS April 8th. 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.

Within your field, what range of options do you see for Saint Michael’s College biology graduates?

I think there are a lot more opportunities for students these days. My field is very competitive, but “where there is a will there is a way.” Summarizing the options for Saint Michael's graduates I would say: 1) Going on to graduate school to pursue a master’s or doctorate; 2) Working in industry; 3) Bioinformatics; 4) Teaching at all levels; 5) Scientific writing/illustration; 6) Working in an aquarium in areas of research, exhibits, education; 7) Wildlife management/government positions.

Are there specific opportunities at Mystic Aquarium or elsewhere that you think biology majors should pursue before graduation?

They should try to gain as much experience in an area that they think they want to pursue. You may find out that it’s not really what you want or you may love it. Volunteering, special courses, applying for summer jobs, senior research, etc. - all of these things will help and show you are committed. Joining the appropriate scientific society and attending the meetings to meet people in the field and learn about the latest research is also important.

Opportunities at Mystic Aquarium include our undergraduate internship program and/or becoming a volunteer. It’s possible to get educational credits for our internship program. It’s very competitive (there is an application process). Interns are required to conduct their own research project and then write a paper on it and give a Power Point presentation to the staff. This usually occurs during the fall and spring semesters, or the summer. The different internship areas are working with the whales, sea lions and penguins, fish and invertebrates, education, research, and veterinary services. The Mystic Aquarium Web site ( has the application details and deadlines.

Finally, what advice would you give current Saint Michael's College students interested in graduate study and/or specifically interested in marine biology?

To follow your passion because in the end that is what will get you through! Make your own opportunities and never give up, and surround yourself with the best of people!



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