On her first day of work, Erin Petrino had to catch an escaped octopus. The creature had gotten out of his locked tank and was crawling across the floor of the small lab at Mote Marine Laboratory and Aquarium, where Petrino had just begun her internship.
Her screams for her supervisor, Noam Josef, a postdoctoral research fellow, brought others running, but she eventually caught the eight-armed underwater alien in a bucket and returned him to his tank.
Petrino is one of nine University of South Florida Sarasota-Manatee students enrolled in the Mote Research Experience for Undergraduates.
As she quickly learned, the internships are hands on.
“Education is a huge piece of what we do and this program dovetails perfectly with our mission here at Mote,” Mote’s student engagement coordinator Gina Santoianni said.
If you let them do what they do best, it brings the lab forward.
Noam Josef, a postdoctoral research fellow
This year’s batch of USFSM interns is the largest since 2014. The positions are designed to help students determine if a career in biology is for them, and the roles are diverse and demanding. High-level researchers expect their interns to jump in with both feet and contribute to the numerous tasks.
“Bringing students in and educating them teaches me a lot,” Josef said. “If you let them do what they do best, it brings the lab forward.”
In addition to cleaning tanks, changing filters and catching the occasional stray octopus, Petrino has been tasked with coming up with ways to stimulate the octopuses’ brains. Being a research octopus is not much fun, Josef said, as the highly intelligent creatures spend all day in relatively small glass aquariums. He tasked Petrino with developing activities for the octopuses.
She created a jar with small holes in it where the researchers will place a shrimp. That way the octopus has to get to the prey through the small holes in the jar.
USFSM student Sharla Rafferty, 29, extracts DNA samples from partially digested prey of spotted eagle rays in hopes of better understanding the food sources the rays rely upon.
And Sydney Whitlock, 20, spends her days feeding quarter-inch long translucent crustaceans arranged in glass beakers with a pipette. Her work is contributing to a study examining the impact of mosquito pesticides on the lobster population.
Despite the grunt work, the greater sense of purpose infuses the students with enthusiasm.
“I just love being here and can’t say enough about this opportunity,” Whitlock said.
I just love being here and can’t say enough about this opportunity.
Sydney Whitlock, intern at Mote
“It’s interesting to learn about animals and their larger environment,” Rafferty said. “I could definitely see myself doing this as a career.”
Perhaps most valuable, the internships expose students to the realities of working with animals on a day-to-day basis.
That same first day the octopus escaped, Josef explained to Petrino the predatory nature of an octopus, which catches its prey in its arms and anesthetizes it before devouring it with a beak strong enough to crush stone crabs. Then he asked her to put her arm in the tank.
“It wasn’t just to test Erin. I wanted to gauge her attitude toward the living things. I wanted to see her reaction,” he said, pleased with the results. “She was curious and engaging, not intimidated.”