Graduate students launch
marine mammal conference 


Alex Costidis, a marine biologist and UF graduate student in Aquatic Animal Health, taught symposium participants how to properly conduct a manatee dissection.

More than 40 graduate students and others from three states and 13 institutions visited the University of Florida College of Veterinary Medicine in late January to participate in a new student-led conference focusing on marine mammal research.

Attendees took advantage of research presentations, including a keynote address by Dr. Bob Bonde, a biologist with the United States Geological Survey-Sirenia Project who received his Ph.D. through the UF Aquatic Animal Health program. The symposium was followed by three days of hands-on learning opportunities, which included an anatomy tutorial and manatee health assessments. 

Sponsored by the newly-formed Florida Student Chapter of the Society for Marine Mammalogy, the event was the culmination of three years of discussion and planning and was spearheaded by three determined graduated students in the Aquatic Animal Health program.

“We almost gave up, but last August we decided this was something we wanted to do,” said Meghan Bills, who organized the event, along with Noel Takeuchi and Jennifer McGee.

“The biggest hurdles were funding. Typically these conferences are free to students and we were already worried about turnout, so we didn’t want to have to charge a registration fee,” Takeuchi said.

The group’s advisor, Dr. Roger Reep, a professor of physiological sciences, had assured the student leaders that things would “all work out,” Bills said. Reep and fellow UF faculty members, including Dr. Mike Walsh and Dr. Don Samuelson, all donated funds to help support the effort.

Eventually, additional funds were raised through a book raffle – a book was donated by the Save the Manatee Club —  and other venues, including a generous contribution from Tampa Electric Company.  Attendance exceeded expectations.

The organizers agreed that it was a lot of work preparing the venue, organizing the food and registrants, that their efforts were definitely worthwhile.

“The environment was very encouraging to students both at the beginning and end of their degree,” Bills said.

The professionals who were present for the roundtable discussions enjoyed the opportunity to answer questions and discuss problems and concerns with students in a small setting.  Participants were also offered a chance to give their own presentations — a first for many students. At the end of the symposium, evaluation forms were provided, enabling each presenter to obtain feedback from their peers in order to improve in future presentations.

“It was definitely a success,” McGee said. “Several students gave talks for the first time and it was also the first time I was ever provided with feedback on my oral presentations.”

The post-symposium activities distinguished this particular conference from others that have been held by other student chapters elsewhere in the U.S.

The anatomy tutorial and dissection of a manatee carcass, led by Alex Costidis, allowed students who are not able to regularly attend necropsies to learn about marine mammal anatomy. Bonde also generously allowed the organizers to bring attendees to the manatee health assessments in Crystal River.

Bills, Takeuchi and McGee all were pleased at the compliments they received on the symposium’s content, food and organization and said they hope the event will become an annual tradition.  
The second symposium is planned in association with the Florida Marine Mammal Health Conference next April at Mote Marine Laboratory with the help of fellow graduate student Joseph Gaspard.

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