Live in the Desert, Study the Sea

A partnership between UNLV and The Mirage enables students to get close to marine life

Dolphin trainer and aquarist aren’t your typical Strip jobs. But with several large aquariums at resort properties, the opportunity to study marine life in the desert isn’t such an oxymoron. One collaboration between The Mirage and UNLV enables students to study marine life during a yearlong internship that could help make history.

The Care and Management of Marine Animals Internship allows biology and environmental studies students the opportunity to get paid while they learn more about marine life. In addition to learning about the husbandry, conditioning, education and communication roles surrounding dolphins, aquaria-focused interns have been working on a project for the last two years that could change lives.

Dr. Carl Reiber, life sciences professor and associate dean of UNLV’s College of Sciences, heads the Zebrafish Project, which studies the species in hopes of one day curing Williams Syndrome. The condition affects one in 10,000 people worldwide, an estimated 20,000 to 30,000 people in the United States, and causes cardiovascular disease, developmental delays and learning disabilities. The syndrome is caused by the deletion of the elastin gene on chromosome 7, according to the University of Nevada School of Medicine.

The zebrafish’s quick life cycle, uncomplicated breeding process and ability to be genetically manipulated make it easy to study. The project’s goal is to eventually breed a mutant strain of zebrafish missing the same gene in order to study possible cures and treatments, says intern Nick Davi, aquarium curator at The Mirage.

Davi, who works closely with Reiber, first researched and developed the rack system of 12 aquariums that will provide the perfect living environment for the fish at a UNLV lab. Another intern, Dominique Robbins, currently works on breeding the fish, raising the fry and writing lab protocols.

“I’m finding it really an enriching experience,” Robbins says. “Their [embryonic] life cycle is only 48 hours. Being able to monitor that is fun for me.”

Robbins, a 2006 UNLV graduate, is still deciding on possible master’s degree avenues, and Missy Giannantonio, curator of education at The Mirage, says that’s OK. As the first intern at the Dolphin Habitat in 1993, Giannantonio understands how interests can change.

“Students walk away always with a learning experience. That has never changed,” she says. “The internship is designed for you to see if this is the career path you want to go down. … It’s not always the right fit, but that doesn’t mean it’s not a positive experience.”

Shane Watson, 24, a biochemistry major at UNLV, currently trains dolphins at the habitat and will graduate in the fall with a degree in biology, now with a changed emphasis in ecology and evolution.

“The thing that really grabbed me and pulled me in, this is a very challenging line of work. I love the challenge,” he says. “I tend to look at things as more of an opportunity than I used to.”