Sharks and sting rays have led two South Kingstown marine biologists into a sea of discovery as they begin their professional careers fulfilling passions for understanding aquatic life of all kinds.
While many people back away in fear from these underwater dangers, these two aquarists found their interest in them led to discovering their curiosities about other marine animals, too.
“A lot of people in our field really like sharks,” said Ryan Woods, 25, who studied them years ago while interning at Mystic Aquarium, and now has moved to studying coral. “Sharks and rays carry a little stigma that attracts people to them, but they’re really cool.”
Hillary Hastings, 26, liked them, too, and also sought an internship at Mystic working with the same animals with a bad reputation among swimmers. However, she unexpectedly found herself caring for and learning about jellyfish, including the habits of these squiggly, squishy and sometimes colorful marine animals that in some varieties also shoot a sting into unaware humans and other fish.
Learning and exploring is all part of the adventure of becoming a marine biologist and developing their professional careers at a nationally ranked aquarium. These two residents are finding a wealth of experience at Mystic to fuel their passions for scientific discovery.
“That (internship) is what really sparked my interest and developed me as an aquarist. Doing all the culturing of jellyfish was really gratifying,” said Hastings, a native of Wallkill, N.Y. Woods also found renewed love of coral after working with the sharks, which are classified as “elasmobranchs” because they are mostly cartilage.
“After the conclusion of that internship and doing sharks and rays all day, I was rather elasmobranched-out,” he said with a laugh, and eventually he resumed working with the coral species that attracted him at 13 years old. Hundreds to thousands of polyp-like creatures cluster to form coral, and food comes from the water and sweeps into their mouths.
Coral is a soft-bodied polyp—most no thicker than a nickel— that creates a hard and outer skeleton of limestone that attaches either to rock or to the dead skeletons of other polyps. The stony or hard coral clusters continually grow, die and regenerate to form the many coral reefs found around the world.
This fascinated the young Woods who carried into adulthood his interest in this form of marine life. And so it goes, as well, for Hastings and her passion for all forms of jellyfish.
“It’s important to me,” she said, “because jellyfish are so misunderstood, or not understood at all. Most people don’t know that they can eat and that they are male or female and that they play a role in the ecosystem as a food for other animals.”
“It’s fun to be in the jelly gallery and feed them and people say ‘They eat? No way!’ They even have mouths and stomachs, but not eyes, hearts, lungs or brains, anything like that,” she said.
The thread of passion weaves through both of these young scientists starting as youngsters, from internships and volunteer work that led to various aquariums, to studying together at Roger Williams University in Bristol and now to full-time jobs at the nationally ranked Mystic Aquarium.
Woods, a native of West Hartford, Conn., offered, “When you go into something that is as highly specialized as jellies and corals...you truly need to immerse yourself in a single specialty. For instance, if you tried to do a coral gallery without drawing yourself into it to the fullest extent, you would not be successful.”
In his path to Mystic, Woods also studied crustaceans, which include lobsters and crabs.
“It’s kind of funny, I didn’t particularly like lobsters,” he said about this experience at the New England Aquarium in Boston. “And then I was given the gallery with all the lobsters and I grew the lobster population,” he added.
This led him to collecting unusual varieties, such as blue, yellow and calico crustaceans that he spawned and also used for genetic studies.
Similarly, Hastings said her work with jellyfish took her to Ripley’s Aquarium in South Carolina, where Woods also worked. She developed a program there about jellyfish and opened a new gallery for people to view different varieties.
“I spent two years there,” she said. “Jellies and coral are something that are pretty specialized, so you stay in it because it requires a lot of specialized knowledge. It’s one of those things -- you either love it or hate it because it’s so very different than taking care of (other) fish or marine mammals.”
As passions grew in their field, these two, whose foundations were influenced by Mystic Aquarium internships, returned within the last two years to full-time jobs at the aquarium.
The average day for these two is anything but usual as they expand their own knowledge, take care of the species under their watch and -- most importantly -- try to ignite in aquarium visitors the same enthusiasm and curiosity they have for underwater creatures.
Woods said he likes to infuse visitors with interest by having new and different approaches to displaying his coral galleries, which are water tanks showing coral in a natural living environment. He manages eight displays and this requires attention to details large and small each day.
Hastings said she also maintains her galleries as Woods does, and also likes teaching visitors about jellyfish.
Like his colleague from South Kingstown, Woods said he wants to continue working with research scientists to develop his skills and help create a broader network of marine biology interest in high schools in Connecticut through Mystic Aquarium.
“We have a lot of knowledge here to help in schools,” he said such as doing research symposia, assisting teachers to learn more about marine science for classroom lessons and foster high school students’ interest by helping them with marine research and then sponsoring presentations of their work.
Hastings said that graduate school in some form could be ahead for her, though it might be part-time because the work at Mystic is also important to her career and desire for hands-on experience.
“I think that working at Mystic Aquarium is pretty cool. It brings people within reach to see many animals they might never see on their own,” she explained, enthusiasm rising in her voice.
“When people can see an animal in the environment we have provided for it, this really makes that animal real. It brings that animal out of that nature documentary you’ve been watching,” she said, adding that it can promote in visitors a desire to preserve what they see.
“It’s real, it’s beautiful, it’s something you really want to fight for,” she said.