Guo Zhiping, an intern at Subic Bay, had a childhood question: how to differentiate two animals of the same species from one another, like an elephant from the others within a herd.
He has found the answer – more or less – with dolphins.
“Looking out for certain parts of the dolphins, like the differences in the pectoral fins and dorsal fins, helps to distinguish them within a group,” he says proudly.
Almost four months ago, Zhiping was just another pioneer-batch Veterinary Bioscience student at Ngee Ann Polytechnic. Hearing about this overseas internship opportunity from his lecturers, he applied alongside several course mates. After an internal selection and interview with Marine Life Park’s chief veterinarian, he was invited to start as soon as possible. In his job, he would be able to work with Marine Life Park’s marine mammal veterinarians and specialists.
He packed his bags and flew up to the dolphin’s facility in Subic Bay to start his four-month long internship, for his first-ever interaction and work with dolphins.
Beyond the textbook
As with most internships, what Zhiping learned in school helped with getting ahead in the work environment. Modules such as immunology, clinical diagnostics and microbiology can now be applied. His day-to-day activities at Subic Bay include: water quality tests to ensure the dolphins’ environment is of the right pH level, salinity and temperature tests, processing of blood samples and laboratory maintenance. Of course, any good internship will present a mountain to climb: Zhiping’s biggest challenge was learning how to properly analyze various cell types under the microscope.
“My supervisors (at Subic Bay) gave me a book on cytology of cetaceans focusing on how their cells would look and I tried to identify them. However, it is not as simple as it sounds; books show the best pictures that would depict a type of cell, but a cell is living and 3-dimensional, and can look quite different from the pictures. I often misidentified cells or failed to identify them completely. But I’m getting better at it now.”
Other than being able to tell dolphins apart on the surface, Zhiping has learnted even more about these amazing marine animals.
“Biologically, I found out that a dolphin has three different compartments in its stomach, its respiratory system also has a special adaption for the aquatic life that differs from terrestrial animals and also learned the proper steps of actions to take when a dolphin needs veterinary care.”
Living away from home
But while Zhiping is grateful to be part of the team in Subic Bay, being away from Singapore also means missing home. On most weekday nights, after doing his chores and settling down after work, the internet is his best companion as he spends his time communicating with friends and family through social media websites and skype.
Living with three other marine mammal specialists from the Bahamas and the USA – a friendly and outgoing bunch – has also made it easier for him to settle in. They take turns cooking for each other. It helps to create an atmosphere of independence and camaraderie, something that is an added advantage when doing an overseas internship.
Now about three months into the internship, he says that it was well worth it. He has honed his laboratory skills and, looking ahead, he hopes to pursue a career in marine life care.
But he admits that he has a long way to go –
“What impressed me most is that the marine mammal specialists can distinguish them apart even from a distance!”
We’re sure that it’s only a matter of time before Zhiping becomes a consummate professional too.