Groovy Career

Kate McClave

Kate McClave
Curator of Aquatic Health Science and Living Systems
Wildlife Conservation Society’s New York Aquarium

When she was a young girl, Kate McClave loved to spend her time at the beach sanding, fishing, and getting to know the creatures along the shore. Her passion led to a degree in Marine Biology and to her current groovy career as Curator of Aquatic Health Science and Living Systems at the Wildlife Conservation Society’s (WCS) New York Aquarium. Kate is responsible for the care and treatment of the Aquarium’s collection: fish, turtles, penguins, walruses, marine mammals and amphibians. She also manages the onsite hospital where they are able to treat creatures as small as sea stars and as large as walruses. The New York Aquarium is part of the Wildlife Conservation Society and, as part of WCS teams, Kate travels the world to rescue stranded whales and save the endangered blue iguana. Even if you are not a marine biologist, you will want her job!

How did you get started in the field of marine biology?
I majored in Marine Biology at Roger Williams University. The first courses I took included Marine Algae, Ichthyology, and Marine Survey. It was a great way to see if this was the career I would want. I enjoyed everything I did and I loved my teachers who both taught and went diving with us. I learned that I wanted to do applied research—a combination of hands on work with animals and research.

What was your first job after college?

I didn’t know there were aquarium jobs then, so I looked for jobs at state or federal fisheries. I found a job at the National Marine Fisheries Service that placed surveyors on foreign fishing vessels to monitor their nets. There were no women on the boats and the work made even some of the guys nervous. So my job turned out to be writing manuals for the next generation of women that would come after me in the job. I never went out on one of the vessels to do the monitoring.

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How long have you been Curator of Aquatic Health Sciences at the WCS New York Aquarium?
After my first job at NMFS, I had several jobs at labs doing research for environmental compliance and then I was hired for this job at the Aquarium. I have been here for 28 years.

What does your job involve?
My department is responsible for the health and care of the collection. For the fish, marine mammals, sharks, penguins, and amphibians, we manage and treat their water sources. We also manage a 10,0000 square foot hospital capable of doing the veterinary requirements for the entire collection. Also, we are responsible for fish pathology: diagnosis for fish diseases, identification of parasites, and treatment, as well as necropsies (animal and fish autopsies).

Your job seems to require major problem solving on a daily basis?
In college, I learned the basics of marine biology but this is the kind of job where I learn daily because there are so many different things that I have to figure out. We are making new strides every day in medicine, especially fish medicine. There used to be just a couple of fish biologists doing work for the state who knew about fish. Now it is an exploding new field. Veterinarians are getting into aquatic medicine because there are lots of people with exotic fish in their ponds and they need care.

What is the best part of your job?
Working with the animals is the greatest thing in the world. I can be having a bad day and I can get here and see one of the critters, say the walrus Nuka. I raised her since I arrived here in 1981 and she’s now 28 years old. I can see her before the public arrives when I’m doing my observation rounds in the morning, and I can greet her and she will greet me back, just whistle to me. And it’s great just getting to do anything with the animals.
I have a particular passion for fish medicine. I’m really interested in developing new techniques for fish surgery and fish disease diagnosis. Also, we want to use fewer chemicals for treatments whether it is for the water or for diseases in the animals. We are trying to look at the whole organism holistically by focusing more at neutraceuticals (vitamins and supplements) and different ways to approach the same disease.

How does your work differ from veterinarians?
When the aquarium industry built up, the veterinarians weren’t interested in the fish collection. They spent time with mammals and birds. Biologists took care of the fish. So I grew up learning how to diagnose the fish and the water. When the veterinarians in our five parks have a fish disease question, they call me. We work out the treatment regime together and it is a fantastic partnership because their pharmacological knowledge is much better than mine and they brought a whole suite of diagnostic tools that we can now use. Medicine is gone full force for fish.

I hear you are called “The Fish Doctor.”
Yes, they do call me that. I also have a side job, a 20-year-old company that does aquarium sales and services for large corporations, dental and doctor groups, and hospitals. We do the installation of public displays. As biologists, we won’t let you just have any fish. It has to be socially responsible fish and kept the right way in order for us to do the work.

For the college students reading about your groovy careers who like the idea of working at an aquarium, what types of jobs are available?

In the public aquarium field, we have aquarists or trainers. Both groups are biologists who have degrees in biology or zoology and sometimes psychology. The aquarists take care of a section or a gallery that can have fish, a penguin, perhaps turtles. The person responsible for that section has to know all about those animals. He/she is responsible for the ecosystem: diet, cleaning, and observations for health. If the animals breed and have babies and the babies need to be nurtured, that keeper becomes a surrogate.

The trainers are the show people who train the marine mammals to do the shows for the public at the Aquarium. They also teach medical husbandry behaviors which allow us to do medicine without intervening. For example, they teach the animals to hand a flipper to the trainer so blood can be taken so that an ultrasound can be performed without stressing the animal or the trainer.

How does a college student apply for a job at the Aquarium?
Most of the people who come here to work for us start out as volunteers. We get biology majors who come in their summer breaks or during regular breaks and volunteer for us. They learn the business, training, how to take care of the animals, water quality, minor veterinarian aspects such as how to take blood samples and how to analyze it.
If you want a job here, you need to put the hard time in volunteering. Once the staff gets to know you and you get your college degree and your scuba certification, you are likely to get in. To apply for a volunteer position, go online at www.nyaquarium.com.

What is the coolest thing you have done as part of your job?
I have a lot of cool stories. I also work for our parent organization, the Wildlife Conservation Society, and we do conservation all over the world. In a few weeks, I’m going on a field trip to do conservation in the Grand Cayman Islands. I’m a member of a team that has been working with the blue iguana, which is only found in the Grand Caymans. When we started six years ago, the blue iguana were critically endangered and there were only 15 left. We are working to reintroduce the breed and re-introduce this population back to the wild. My team does the medical assessments. Our efforts have been very successful: there are now 650 blue iguanas. Our ultimate goal is 1200 and then they will be genetically diverse and self-sustaining in a protected area. Then our jobs will be finished. For me, if you can say you have made great strides for conservation in the world that is so rewarding!

I understand that you also rescued whales in Madagascar.
On a minute’s notice last year, we had to go to Madagascar for a mass stranding of whales. This was a culturally significant event for the Malagasy people because they revere the whales and believe the whales protect them. This stranding was the first occurrence of its kind in their waters and it was frightening for them. It was the closest mass stranding to gas and oil exploration ever recorded. We had to go on 27 hours notice. It was no small feat to get halfway around the world in that amount of time, plus we had to bring everything we needed with us. When we arrived, there were 45 animals alive. We spent days in an area the size of the Chesapeake Bay trying to herd the whales back into the ocean. And we were also providing medicine on the ones who were in bad shape.

What influence did your Dad have on you and your career?
My father was the premier guy of all time. He was ahead of the curve for his age knowing women can do whatever they want. He was very supportive of whatever I wanted to do. He said I could be whatever I wanted to be and do whatever I wanted to do. When I wanted to go sanding or fishing, or I wanted a tank, he always said “Yes.”

What words of wisdom do you have for college students just starting out on their career paths?

First, hopefully you’ll get passionate about something and you’ll find the direction. But if you don’t, don’t worry. Be willing and open for experiences. Check out all the courses you can at school. Go liberal arts to start if you don’t know what you’re doing. Take some basic science classes that might be a little over the edge – something unique such as Botany or Ichthyology or a general marine biology class if you might go in that direction. If you want to enter the biology field, try and do whatever you can at your local level. Volunteer for the Clean Ocean Group or for your local aquarium. Step outside of yourself and what everybody around you thinks you should do. Some people say there’s only business or there’s only law or teaching. Talk to other people and see what they are doing for their jobs. I’m blessed by the fact that I knew what I wanted to do. I am lucky to be passionate about my job.