CELS Student Researches Beluga Whale Populations

KrystleIt’s not unusual for people to be unsure of their future when they start college, and Krystle Schultz, a College of the Environment and Life Sciences (CELS) senior, was no exception. With no particular career in mind, Schultz took a class in the Animal and Veterinary Science program that changed the course of her academic career. At first, she approached the Anatomy and Physiology of Domesticated Animals class with trepidation because of her fear of blood.  She was surprised to discover that she actually loved conducting dissections and observing surgery.

 “That lab was the moment,” Schultz said. “While it sounds kind of gross, I found dissecting cats and sheep brains fascinating. Ever since I observed surgery, I knew that was what I wanted to do.”

 In addition to working in animal clinics, volunteering at a local zoo and personally fostering several cats, Schultz’s experience observing surgery steered her towards an Animal Science major.

 But, after taking an ecology course, she also discovered a love of marine life. Today, she double majors in Animal Science and Technology and Marine Biology.

 Her advisor and greatest influence, Dr. Becky Sartini, further expanded Schultz’s interests by introducing her to a genetics lab. Intrigued, Schultz applied for and received two URI Undergraduate Research Initiative Grants to support her own molecular research. Schultz now collects genetic material from cells that line the respiratory tract of beluga whales. 

 Using exhale samples collected from belugas both at Mystic Aquarium and Bristol Bay, Alaska, Schultz extracts genetic material.  Analysis is performed on a region of DNA that is inherited directly from the beluga whale mother.  This technique allows scientists to trace lineages and collect population data for beluga whales and possibly even other cetaceans (whales, dolphins and porpoises) in a non-invasive manner.  In Krystle’s case, she collects an exhale sample originating from the blowhole of a beluga, isolates the genetic material, and determines where the whale’s mother came from without the necessity of running traditional tissue samples. 

beluga “She is a talented young scientist with a passion for animals who took ownership of her research project and, as a result, has made contributions to the field of beluga reproduction,” Dr. Sartini, Schultz’s mentor explains.  “She has superb molecular biology laboratory skills and is proactive in troubleshooting experiments and interpreting data.”

 If maintaining a double major and independent research isn’t enough, Schultz leads a peer-reviewed study session for chemistry students while maintaining a 4.0 GPA. 

 “I really enjoy helping other students,” Schultz explains. “I help to guide them in the direction of success in chemistry.  Doing that makes me feel good and I have fun with it.”

 Already making great strides in education and research, Schultz plans on attending veterinarian school with the hope of becoming a veterinary surgeon specializing in small animal care.