Waiting for a whale to exhale: Justin Richard ’03 and his unique research

Justin Richard '03 is studying the breath, or
Justin Richard '03 is studying the breath, or "blow," of beluga whales like Juno at the Mystic Aquarium to research reproduction in the aquatic mammals.

Wandering around a volunteer fair during his first year on campus, Justin Richard ’03 found himself in front of a table advertising opportunities at the nearby Mystic Aquarium. He was interested in marine biology, so he signed up to help in the education program.

Richard, a biology major, unknowingly had begun down the road to what would become his life passion: researching beluga whales.

After four years of volunteering, Richard was offered a job at the aquarium and, for the past 10 years, has worked there as a marine mammal trainer. All of that time with the aquatic creatures has given him the opportunity build strong relationships with them — leading to some up-close-and-personal research.

The research, however, is not your normal observational study. At the aquarium, Richard studies the whales breath — or “blow” — that is expelled from the whale’s blowhole, a method of data collection far less invasive than the standard practice of capturing a whale in the open ocean and firing a biopsy dart into its body. Through the whale’s blow, Richard is able to find genetic and reproductive information, including hormone levels that can be compared to blood samples of beluga whales that the aquarium has on hand.

“Essentially, I study whale snot,” Richard says.

The goal, Richard said, is to determine if the less-invasive testing is as effective as blood samples, making the study of whales easier for researchers — and the whales. Richard has trained the beluga whales at the aquarium to willingly submit to these regular health screenings through positive reinforcement.

“Our techniques have been gaining considerable traction in the field of marine mammal biology,” said Richard, adding his work has been featured in several science publications and in the New York Times last fall.

Richard, a recipient of the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship, is now enrolled as a Ph.D. candidate in integrative and evolutionary biology at the University of Rhode Island. He hopes to continue his research and become a college professor, much like his mentor Robert Askins, the Blunt Professor of Biology at Connecticut College.

“The faculty at Connecticut College, like Dr. Askins, treat you like a colleague rather than a student, giving you the opportunity to work and perform valuable research with them,” said Richard. “I learned early on that the faculty will help you make the most of your College experience.”

January 28, 2014