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Mystic Aquarium Research Team



Leading the Mystic Aquarium research team is Dr. Tracy Romano, a founder of the field of marine mammal neuroimmunology and leader in the field of marine mammal health. Romano graduated with a BS in Biology from Saint Michael’s College in Vermont and received her PhD in Neurobiology & Anatomy from the University of Rochester School of Medicine. While a graduate student, Romano spent her summers studying with the U.S. Navy’s Marine Mammal Program in San Diego and investigating neural-immune interactions in the beluga whale. Her postdoctoral work built upon this research to investigate the marine mammal immune system and the impact of stress and the environment on marine mammal health, in collaboration with the Marine Mammal Program and The Scripps Research Institute in La Jolla, California. After her postdoctoral studies, Romano established a research laboratory focused on studying stress and the marine mammal immune system at the Navy Base in San Diego.

In 2004, Romano moved her lab to Mystic Aquarium, where she became Vice President of Research and Veterinary Services. Since then, she has served in multiple capacities for the organization, including oversight for Animal Husbandry, Animal Care, the Animal Rescue Program and Exhibits, in addition to Research. Currently, Romano is Vice President of Biological Research and Chief Scientist at the Aquarium, where she leads a research team focused on aquatic animal health and conservation biology. Among numerous forms of professional recognition, Romano has been an inductee into the Saint Michael’s College Academic Hall of Fame, an American Society for Engineering Education Fellow, a finalist for the Connecticut Technology Council’s Women of Innovation award and a National Research Council Fellow. She serves on multiple scientific advisory panels, was President of the International Association for Aquatic Animal Medicine, has mentored many award-winning students, has created and conducted a nationally recognized science education and cultural exchange program for Native American youth, has led over 15 field expeditions to the Arctic, holds joint appointments at multiple universities and has made significant scientific contributions to the field of aquatic animal health.

Tracy Romano, PhD, VP of Research is interested in the physiological interactions between the nervous and immune systems and how stress impacts the immune system. Most of the reagents and tools to investigate the immune system for marine mammals first had to be developed. Her research team focused on developing molecular reagents as well as monoclonal antibodies and assays specifically for cetaceans for a number of years. Now with a “tool box” available, investigation of stressors and impact on the immune system are being investigated in the aquarium’s collection animals, stranded animals as well as wild animals. The team is collaborating on health assessments of two populations of belugas in Alaska, bottlenose dolphins in the Indian River Lagoon and Charleston Harbor, gray seals on Muskegat Island, and local CT snapping turtles. Loud sound, changing temperatures, novel environments, new social interactions and transport are all examples of stressors that have been shown to impact the marine mammal immune system and have been or are currently under investigation. Continued development of marine mammal immune-specific reagents allows for comparative immunological studies. Moreover, the aquarium research team is investigating novel techniques for investigating health in marine animals that are less invasive than blood sampling. These consist of investigating the potential for measuring stress and reproductive hormones in respiratory exhale, feces and saliva. Currently, ONR is funding the team to investigate molecular signatures of immune function in skin as compared to blood. The team also does monitoring for pathogens – specifically for the prevalence of Brucella in marine mammal tissues.

In the past, when I thought of conservation, two things came to mind – saving a species or restoring an environment.  However, my thinking has evolved. I now see the “face” or the humanity of conservation. I have come to realize that conservation has many interconnected facets. When species are threatened we not only risk their loss and diminish biodiversity; but, we also risk human health and cultural identity.

 -Dr. Tracy Romano


Dr. Peter Auster joined Mystic Aquarium as a senior research scientist in 2011. He is a marine ecologist, and his work focuses on the conservation and sustainable use of biological diversity in the ocean. Although retired from the University of Connecticut, he retains a faculty appointment as a Research Professor Emeritus in the Department of Marine Sciences and has ongoing projects there. For the past 40 years, Auster has conducted studies to understand how the behavior of marine fishes and the dynamics in patterns of habitat use influence their distribution and abundance across underwater landscapes. From an applied science perspective, his most notable work has focused on understanding the ecological effects of fishing and on developing a scientific basis for using marine protected areas as a conservation tool. Auster has led many shore-based projects and has served as a scientist or chief scientist on more than 60 major research cruises in the northwest Atlantic, Bering Sea, Gulf of Alaska, Caribbean Sea, Indian Ocean, South China Sea, Gulf of California and equatorial Pacific.

This fieldwork, which has utilized scuba techniques, research submersibles and remotely operated vehicles, has resulted in more than 140 scholarly and technical publications. Auster serves on multiple panels and committees that are focused on marine resource management and conservation and has been involved in numerous outreach initiatives targeted at informing the public about marine conservation issues. Among numerous forms of professional recognition, Auster is a Pew Fellow in Marine Conservation, was elected a Fellow in the American Institute of Fishery Research Biologists, and was the Mote Eminent Scholar in Fisheries Ecology at Florida State University during the 2010–11 academic year. He also has received a NOAA Environmental Hero Award, a NOAA National Marine Sanctuaries Outstanding Volunteer Service Award and a University of Connecticut at Avery Point Award for Excellence in Teaching.

RESEARCH scientist

Dr. Ebru Unal joined the Mystic Aquarium research team in 2014. She works on immunological assays and molecular techniques to assess health and immune status in marine mammals. Ebru majored in Molecular Biology and Genetics at Bogazici University in Turkey and received her MSc degree in Marine Sciences at Middle East Technical University in Turkey. During her master’s studies, she focused on zooplankton seasonality and genetics. Her work earned her a fellowship from the University of Washington to serve as a visiting research scientist at the School of Oceanography, where she carried out a population genetic study on copepod species. In 2011, Unal earned her PhD in Oceanography from the University of Connecticut (UConn).

Her main research focus during her PhD studies was on molecular responses of marine zooplankton to environmental conditions and stressors in the North Atlantic Ocean. Ebru was appointed as a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Marine Sciences at UConn until 2013, and was later named an Assistant Research Scientist in the UConn Marine Sciences and Technology Center. During her research career, Ebru has utilized population genetics, environmental transcriptomic and functional genomic approaches. At the Aquarium, she is currently working on investigating the molecular and immune response of cetaceans to various environmental and anthropogenic stressors.

RESEARCH scientist

Dr. Laura Thompson came to Mystic Aquarium as a research intern during the summer of 2005, working on the identification and quantification of lymphocyte subsets in wild bottlenose dolphins. Thompson holds a first-class BSc with honors in Marine and Freshwater Biology from the University of London, and obtained her PhD in Oceanography from the University of Connecticut (UConn). Thompson was the first graduate student to complete her degree through a partnership between Mystic Aquarium and UConn’s Marine Science Department at Avery Point. As part of this agreement, she fulfilled the requirements for a PhD at UConn, but carried out her dissertation research at the Aquarium under the advisement of Dr. Tracy Romano. Her main research interest is marine mammal dive physiology and health, including the role of the immune system in the development of dive-related injury and disease. As part of her PhD dissertation, Thompson developed a method to collect samples of respiratory vapor, or “blow,” from belugas, and has used blow sampling to measure changes in cortisol both in animals at Mystic Aquarium as well as in the field. As part of her postdoctoral work, Thompson is studying the relationship between immune cell function, diving and dive-related injury in marine mammals, investigating the hypothesis that a less-sensitive immune response is another mechanism through which marine mammals avoid the bends.


Danielle graduated from Roger Williams University with a BS in Marine Biology where she studied the growth rate of juvenile oysters. She was also a NOAA Hollings fellow, where she investigated the respiratory physiology of clearnose skates and summer flounder in response to coastal climate change. She received her Master’s degree in Marine Biology from the University of Massachusetts Dartmouth, in which her thesis focused on the temperature tolerance of a parasite invasive to American eels. She also developed a non-lethal detection method for this parasite using digital X-ray technology. She is currently a Research Technician at Mystic Aquarium and is involved in a number of research projects as well as conservation and education initiatives.