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Mystic Aquarium’s Cultural Exchange Empowers Students to Take Action in Beluga Conservation

Mystic, Conn. (November 14, 2019): “The time is now for us to take action not only by continuing our conservation research with tenacity but to inspire the next generation of conservationists”, stated Dr. Tracy Romano as the 2019 National Science Foundation funded science based educational and cultural exchange workshop for Alaska Native and Native American high school youth was about to begin at Mystic Aquarium.

“It is our goal to empower students of the North Slope and other native communities to become their own natural resource managers,” said Dr. Romano.

A 30-year veteran of conservation research, Dr. Tracy Romano is Chief Scientist at Mystic Aquarium in Mystic, Conn. She is the founder of the field of marine mammal neuroimmunology and is a leader in the field of marine mammal health.

This work is necessary if there is hope to stem the tide of climate change.

The landmark report from the United Nations (UN) Intergovernmental Science-Policy Platform on Biodiversity and Ecosystem Services (IPBES) finds that “around 1 million animal and plant species are now threatened with extinction, many within decades, more than ever before in human history.” A similar UN Special Report focused on the ocean, by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), paints an alarming picture of the present and future ocean.

The Mystic Aquarium North Slope BoroughMashantucket Educational and Cultural Exchange Program is a nationally recognized science-based education and cultural exchange program for Alaska Native and Native American youth created and implemented by Romano in collaboration with colleagues in the Department of Wildlife Management, North Slope Borough.

It is this kind of work being done by Dr. Romano and her team plus the skills being taught through the Cultural Exchange Program today that will help save species like beluga whales.

“But it won’t stop there,” said Dr. Romano. “Our research, while focused on belugas, is applicable to other cetacean species, especially toothed whales. The technologies and health monitoring – like gene expression, immune function and much more – that we are developing and carrying out daily can be applied to all whales.”

A group of 13 students representing three Alaska Native and twoNative American communities all took part in this year’s program at Mystic Aquarium for an immersive experience. The students included Sequoyah Burrell, Nittaunis Baker and Nkeke Harris from the nearby Narragansett Indian Tribe; and Sierra King, Khiyra Eleazer,Keyanna Metts and Tru Adamick from the Mashantucket Pequot Tribal Nation. They were joined by fellow students Torrie Tracey, Teri Ferreira, Rupert Long and Brandon Tukrook from Point Lay, AK; Ebony Oviok of Point Hope, AK and Valerie Bodfish of Wainwright, AK.

As part of the week-long program, the group engaged with a team of professionals from Mystic Aquarium to participate in non-invasive collection of data. The students followed the samples from collection to analysis alongside scientists from the Aquarium. This hands-on experience allowed students to learn not only the importance of Aquarium whales in conservation research but also in the husbandry behaviors trained by animal care professionals that make it all feasible.

“While the science of belugas and other scientific learning is the primary outcome for these trips,” said Romano, “the educational and cultural exchange between the native students is also significant.”

The students enjoyed a wide variety of educational and cultural experiences during the week.

“Our goal is that this program will have an impact on the preservation of indigenous ways of life by inspiring the next generation of conservation researchers,” added Dr. Romano.

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