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Actual Living Scientist: Melissa Sheffer, Aquarist at Discovery World

Mermaids are real, and they are called Aquarists. Many people think that if you want to work with marine animals you need to be near the coast. I’m Melissa Sheffer, and as an Aquarist at Discovery World, I can introduce Wisconsinites to both fresh and saltwater animals they may otherwise never get to see right here in Milwaukee.

Sea turtle restrained for examination in Costa Rica.

There are over 1 million species of plants and animals in the ocean, and as much as 95% of the ocean is still unexplored. I have always been drawn to the mystery of the oceans. Even the species that have been classified are still incredibly cryptic. However, it is the lack of understanding about the oceans that is also their downfall. It isn’t unusual for human beings to neglect what they don’t understand, which is why I hope to give people the opportunity to explore a part of the world they don’t reside in through working as an Aquarist at Discovery World.

I have known I wanted to work with marine animals since before I could even say “Marine Biology” correctly. In high school I filled my schedule with science classes. In college I studied biology, graduating with honors in 3 years and studied veterinary medicine in Costa Rica. Following college, I did an internship in St. Thomas at an aquarium where I researched sea turtle behavior, and did another internship in the Florida Keys at an interactive aquarium focusing on guest connection to the animals of the ocean.

Melissa working with a Green Sea Turtle in St. Thomas.

Seeing a child’s first interaction with a marine animal or their desire to learn more about animals is one of the many reasons I enjoy my work. When you watch the spark in someone else’s eye for a passion you already have, it makes the long hours and the dirty tasks worthwhile. In a similar manner, there is nothing more fulfilling than seeing an animal improve.

During my internship in St. Thomas, our sea turtles, which had been deemed non-releasable by Fish and Wildlife Services, were exhibiting some unusual behaviors. I set out to encourage them to perform more normal behaviors through enrichment. It was this research that helped me find my current position and encourages me to advocate for science in my community.

Today, working at Discovery World, I am able to experience the passion and fulfillment I have worked for every day. I spend my days, cleaning tanks, making food, feeding all my aquatic babies, and caring for their wellbeing.

Melissa diving the Caribbean tank at Discovery World.

Although I can plan on having a few similar activities every day, no two days are the same. Working in an aquarium provides the unique challenges of not only caring for animals, but working with plumbing and some electrical as well. I love the constant activity and quick thinking that Aquarist work demands. When I go to Discovery World each morning, I know I can plan on a few day to day activities, such as feedings as well as several projects of all sizes. Perhaps it is a day where I spend a couple hours suited up in my wet suit and weight belt with my scrub brushes diving one of our larger tanks for cleaning. Maybe it is a day where I clean all the décor from an exhibit and rearrange it so the inhabitants have a new set up to explore. My favorite days though, are when our new animals or previously sick animals have successfully made it through their quarantine time, been deemed healthy and are moved into their exhibit homes.

Animals do not have a voice of their own in policy. It is up to us to learn about them, work to understand them, and protect them. Every day, I go to Discovery World to care for my animals, to ensure they are happy and healthy, and to do my absolute best to improve their well-being. I bond with them, love them, and watch them grow. A career in Animal Science is a career of passion and care. We set out with a goal to do our absolute best for our animals and will do whatever it takes for them.

Melissa adding a back scratching tent to the Green Sea Turtle exhibit in St. Thomas.



Baby cow nose ray born at Florida Keys Aquarium Encounters (left) and a blood draw on a Hawksbill Turtle in Costa Rica (right).

An animal cannot tell you if it doesn’t feel well. An animal cannot tell you if it is losing its home. An animal cannot stand up and say it needs help. It is up to us to do it for those animals. By working with animals, I gain a sense of strength in learning about my own compassion, a sense of pride in doing what is right, and a sense of empathy in putting their needs above my own.

Written by Melissa Sheffer for the Milwaukee Area Science Advocates (MASA)

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