The Columns

Interns at Work: Rachel Steffen ’18 National Marine Mammal Foundation (NMMF), Naval Base Point Loma, San Diego, CA

— by on September 5th, 2016

Rachel Steffen '18

“What was just supposed to be a quick coffee to discuss what I can do with a bio degree turned out to be one of the most inspirational and motivational summers of my life!”

What attracted you to this internship? I met with Dr.Venn-Watson to discuss the field of Epidemiology over Christmas break and she offered me an internship position for the summer. Epidemiology was a field I had considered, but I wasn’t exactly sure what it entailed, so partaking in this internship was an amazing opportunity.

How did you learn about it? My dad is a captain in the U.S. Navy and heard about Dr. Venn-Watson and the research that was being conducted with the Navy’s dolphins. He suggested I get in contact with Dr. Venn-Watson and check it out.

What gave you the edge in landing this internship? The fact that I am a female interested in the field of epidemiology is what gave me an edge in landing this internship. Epidemiology is the study of how diseases begin, spread and are controlled. It is a field that often gets overlooked by students entering the medical field. My passion for biology, in addition to the lab and field experience I have gotten at W&L, gave Dr. Venn-Watson confidence that I would be a good fit for this internship.

Describe your daily duties. I was given the responsibility for typing up lab reports for various companies that were a part of “Dolphin Connection” (a collaboration of various aquariums and universities that pools data together in order to produce a larger sample size, since each organization has a limited amount of dolphins). I also entered heaps of data into the NMMF data base as well as various spreadsheets. Every day the vet techs would bring us copious amounts of dolphin and sea lion plasma, white blood cells, and serum to organize and put away in oversized freezers.

Twice a week I was able to actually interact with the Navy’s dolphins down at the docks. The Navy has fleet dolphins and research/breeding dolphins. The fleet dolphins are trained to complete missions for the Navy, which include retrieving underwater mines and detaining enemy swimmers (thus preventing them from doing harm to U.S. ships or submarines). All research is done with the research/breeding dolphins. My job was to take breath samples from four of these dolphins. The dolphins are trained to blow into a funnel which I held on their blowhole. The funnel is connected to a glass tube that is inside an insulated casing filled with dry ice. The dolphin breath fills the tube and freezes. We then took the sample back to the lab and put the frozen breath into a bottle for later analysis of metabolites. This type of sampling is still being perfected, but can provide most of the same information as a blood sample without the invasiveness.

Did any courses and/or professors help you prepare for this internship? Which ones? My Bio 111 course on heart attacks with Dr. Hamilton allowed me to understand a lot of the research being done on diabetes and metabolic syndrome of dolphins.

What do you hope to learn by the end of your experience? During my time at the NMMF they came to the end of a study on Dolphin metabolic syndrome, its relation to human metabolic syndrome and diabetes, and how a lack of the fatty acid C:17 (found in some fish and dairy fat) in our diets may be contributing to an increase in metabolic syndrome/diabetes. The research paper on their findings was published at the very end of my internship. It was amazing to see the collaborative effort that went into the funding, data collection, research and analysis process. It took a whole team of people dealing with unexpected issues and years’ worth of data to result in the production of this paper.

What was your favorite part of the internship? The community that works for the NMMF, especially the records office (the department that I worked for), is filled with passion for what they do, love for the dolphins, and an energy that is remarkable. The people are what made entering hours’ worth of data into spreadsheets enjoyable, and inspired me to continue working toward medical school.

What key takeaways/skills will you bring back to W&L? Collaboration, passion and positivity can produce remarkable results.

What advice would you give to students interested in a position like this? Talk to anyone and everyone who might have even the slightest connection with in the field you are looking to go into. What was just supposed to be a quick coffee to discuss what I can do with a bio degree turned out to be one of the most inspirational and motivational summers of my life!

Has this experience influenced your career aspirations? How so? I would like to further pursue a possible career in epidemiology.

Describe your experience in a single word.