Dr. Tracy Romano
'86 is the Senior Vice President for Research and Zoological
Operations at the Mystic Aquarium and Institute for Exploration in
Romano with tagged beluga whale.
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
What sparked your initial interest in biology, and what
eventually lead you into marine biology and your current line of
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.
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.
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
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.
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 (www.mysticaquarium.org) 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!