An Omaha native and Hastings College wildlife biology major, senior Ashlyn Ocander dreams of rescuing and rehabilitating marine mammals. Her passion for marine biology blossomed when she was 13 and witnessed newborn sea turtles returning to the Gulf of Mexico. Since that day, she’s aspired to make a positive impact on aquatic ecosystems, despite her roots in the oceanless Midwest.
“Sometimes when I tell people that I’m studying marine biology at a college in Nebraska, they ask me, ‘Where is your ocean?’” she said.
Ocander found a Nebraskan ocean of sorts during her January Term (J-Term) internship at the Henry Doorly Zoo. She worked in the Suzanne and Walter Scott Aquarium, gaining exposure to the animals and practices she plans to work with later in life.
“Even though the aquarium doesn’t have any marine mammals, my internship still gave me an insight into what I want to do,” Ocander said. “It allowed me to experience marine biology in a hands-on way that isn’t easily replicated in the classroom.”
Working with aquarists
Throughout her internship, Ocander assisted in properly maintaining the exhibits for the animals, including sea turtles, octopi and stingrays. Her tasks involved checking water temperatures, salinity and nitrogen levels; cleaning the tanks; testing the water chemistry; and helping the aquarists on dives.
The interns worked closely with the aquarists, or the professionals that tend to the marine life in an aquarium. Ocander interacted with them multiple times each day, which allowed for networking opportunities between the interns and their professional counterparts.
Ocander quickly built a rapport with the aquarists she worked with. For her, these relationships created an avenue to share her passion, as well as seek advice for the future.
“I used to be very strict about what I was going to do after I graduated Hastings College, but one of the aquarists showed me that some flexibility can be okay,” Ocander said. “She recommended that I try rehab and rescue work before going to grad school, which I’m now planning to do.”
Experience enriches education, passion
The internship also enriched Ocander’s academic experiences when she returned to Hastings College, helping her tie in her responsibilities and experiences at the aquarium with what she learned in class. The opportunity to apply what she’d been studying with her science coursework to real-life situations added clarity to concepts she was less confident about.
“I’ll admit that chemistry isn’t my best subject, but by doing the water chems and understanding how chemistry relates to what I need to now for my future, things definitely began to click,” she said. “Some of the things that originally went over my head in my chemistry lectures, I understand now.”
Her internship with the aquarium reaffirmed Ocander’s passion of marine life, and she plans to continue preparing for a future career in the field. Her ultimate goal is to attend graduate school in South Carolina, taking her closer to the ocean and its marine mammals.
“During my internship, I experienced a taste of what I want to do for the rest of my life. That makes it easier to wake up at 8:00 a.m. for those difficult classes, finish the hard homework assignments and keep working toward a future in marine biology,” Ocander said.