Like most students, Shane Watson has to work long hours to pay his way through school. What sets him apart? His uniform: a wetsuit. And his closest colleague: a dolphin named Dutchess.
A first-generation college student, the biology major is a dolphin trainer at The Mirage Dolphin Habitat. Watson landed the job after completing a yearlong internship between the resort and UNLV. The intensive program teaches the ins and outs of training dolphins.
"The dolphins, although very intelligent, can't tell you what they want or don't want to do," he said. "You have to learn to read and understand their body language to get them to respond positively -- a process that can take months, if not years, to grasp."
UNLV interns also carry out a research project under the guidance of a faculty member. During his internship, Watson studied behavioral interactions between a two-year-old male dolphin and Bella, the habitat's most recently born female.
Dolphins are matriarchal, meaning females rule the pool, so to speak. Watson wanted find out if Bella would outrank the precocious young male. It turns out the male was given more latitude than expected, adding to the growing base of research knowledge of play behavior in dolphins.
The internship boosted his confidence as a researcher and opened his eyes to a career path, Watson said. Now he's hooked on marine mammals.
A Las Vegas native, Watson had no experience with marine life prior to applying for the internship (other than a visit to the Dolphin Habitat once as a child). The same is true for many of his UNLV classmates.
"Students are typically thrown back because they don't realize they can get into this field of study in the middle of the desert," Watson said. "But they can, and they can do it right here at UNLV."
Watson isn't the first UNLV intern to find employment in the field since the program started in 1992. Program alumni are employed at marine habitats all around the world -- and many still call Las Vegas home.
Monica Brazel, the program's first alum is now in charge of the Shark Reef at Mandalay Bay. Its second, Missy Giannantonio, is the curator of animal care education for The Mirage. She's also responsible for the continued success of the internship partnership.
"What makes the program so great is that students learn through immersion," said Giannantonio. "Interns don't just hang in the background, observing and watching; they're out there doing the work."
Internships also give students experience in presenting to elementary, middle, and high schools students. They share what makes dolphins so unique and why it's important to understand animal behavior.
"This is the first chance for many young students in Nevada to see marine mammals up close in person and learn about the importance of our ocean ecosystems," said Giannantonio.