It is a challenge for Rebecca Morris to choose her most memorable day on placement. She’s seen a great white shark, which “was both terrifying and exciting”; she’s watched wild whales and dolphins on the Cetacean Project, caught a pyjama shark for a genetic sampling, and swam with sharks to clean a tank at the aquarium.
“All of these were different days and equally memorable,” said Rebecca, who interned at Oceans Research in Mossel Bay, South Africa for her 15-week Biotechnology – Advanced program internship. “However the best was probably one of my last days. We were out on the boat at sunrise for the Great White Shark Study Project where, for the first time in months, we had about 14 Great Whites at the boat at one time and one big, beautiful girl jumped out of the water. Later this day while fishing, a pod of about 30 dolphins were swimming all around the boat. Our skipper slowed down so we didn’t injure any and could admire them. One particular dolphin was swimming close to the surface at the bow of the boat where I was leaning over. It was a moment that I didn’t even want a camera or my phone, all I wanted was to live the moment. It was a day I will never forget.”
This experience is something Rebecca has been working towards since ninth grade, when she accompanied her father to DOW Chemical for Take Your Kids to Work Day. “It was love at first site,” said Rebecca, who had the opportunity to observe lab work and try the equipment. “Following this, I saw the movie Deep Blue Sea and – even though it is completely inaccurate – the thought of what genetic research has the possibility of creating drew me in. Add in my love of crime shows, books and movies, it was as though the program was made for me.”
Rebecca describes Fleming’s Biotechnology – Advanced program as “tough and demanding,” but adds that “if you honestly have a love of science, it is completely worth every moment.” She credits the professors for being supportive and ensuring every student understands their instructions, and describes her classmates as amazing lifelong friends. She adds that “everyone is friendly. The staff in the cafeteria were always helpful and welcoming, and some even remembered my order at Tim Hortons!”
It was through her program coordinator at Fleming that Rebecca found the opportunity to intern in South Africa and she jumped at the chance. As the Oceans intern, Rebecca was involved with a cetacean study that monitors the behaviour of whales and dolphins, and a great white shark behavioural study that documents dorsal fin pictures for migration type purposes. “The dorsal fin has notches specific to a shark. It is exactly like matching fingerprints through a database,” she explains. Rebecca also worked with benthic sharks, smooth-hound sharks, bronze whaler sharks, and young hammerhead sharks; she helped take genetic samples, measured, tagged them with an acoustic tag, and released them.
“My experience here has been both eye-opening and amazing,” said Rebecca, who is now specialized in shark handling, certified for marine animal stranding, has learned new programs for identification and tracking, perfected fishing knots and a few sailing knots, and is learning to speak Afrikaans. “Coming to South Africa, I expected to be a little lonely and a lot homesick, but now the ocean feels like home. I’ve made some amazing friends, met the man I’m going to marry, and can’t believe how fast the time flew!”