Featured Image: Dolphin Quest
Growing up in the metro Detroit area gave Larissa Michel limited access to and a wild fascination with the ocean and marine mammals. At less than two years old, a childhood visit to Chicago’s John G. Shedd Aquarium piqued her interest, and it hasn’t slowed since.
Now a 17-year-old high school senior, she has been to 18 different zoos, aquariums and marine parks. In addition to these visits, accredited facilities like the Chicago Zoological Society’s (CZS) Brookfield Zoo have provided her with educational opportunities. Access to see and learn about marine life up close inspired her to become a marine mammal expert herself, and she is well on her way.
For her 13th birthday, Michel took part in a trip offered by Shedd to Churchill, Manitoba to see wild beluga whales and their calves. There, she met Dr. Bill Van Bonn, one of Shedd’s veterinarian’s (and current VP of Animal Health), who suggested she attend the 2015 IAAAM conference in Chicago. A freshman at the time, Michel was the first ever high school attendee. After filling an entire legal pad with notes, she presented a poster about her experiences at the 2016 conference in Virginia Beach.
“That got my feet wet with presentation skills, but I wanted to have “real research”, as I called it, to present at the next conference,” Michel said. “Fast forward to the summer of 2017, when I was able to get enough time to do original research by analyzing recordings from the Watkins Marine Mammal Sound Database.”
In May 2018, she presented a poster about research on the effects of increasing levels of oceanic anthropogenic noise caused by increasing shipping traffic, oil drilling, and other sources of man-made activity upon belugas’ vocalizations and communication. A violin prodigy as well, she is able to combine her loves in a way that could aid conservation efforts.
Her enthusiasm and insight caught the attention of Dr. Jay Sweeney (Dolphin Quest), Dr. Forrest Townsend (Bayside Hospital for Animals) and Dr. Randall Wells (CZS/SDRP/Mote Marine Laboratory). The marine mammal experts were so impressed that they invited her to attend the prestigious Sarasota Dolphin Research Program (SDRP), the world’s longest-running health assessment of a wild dolphin population. Dr. Sweeney, the senior veterinarian for the SDRP, and his company Dolphin Quest sponsored Larissa’s participation.
“I hope that young people can use my story as inspiration to follow their passions. It’s important and beneficial to get involved early! Make connections with people, and don’t be afraid to approach and talk to the leading experts, as they possess great wisdom and knowledge.” she said. “It takes a lot of hard work, as well as courage, to create opportunities for yourself, but these will prove invaluable to your education, networking, career, and passion.”
As for where her path goes from here, she will be attending both Oberlin College and Oberlin Conservatory to continue studying both science and music. Upon completion of her studies, she hopes to become a pioneer in cetacean acoustics or medicine and make an impact on conservation efforts, all the while, perusing and sharing the joy of music.
Her journey is an important one, not only for the world of marine mammal studies and conservation efforts, but to zoos and aquariums around the world. None of her accomplishments would be possible without the influence and passion of those who maintain these facilities and offer opportunities to kids like Larissa.
“I think that humans still have so much to learn from marine mammals! The current generation of professionals has set high standards and developed a solid foundation, but young people are the ones with the opportunities to do new groundbreaking research and advance conservation efforts,” she said. “Marine mammalogy is a very niche field, with a close-knit community of researchers and health professionals; a new generation with fresh ideas, lots of optimism, ingenuity, and passion could take conservation, research, and medicine to the next level!”