“Take Five” with MBL Veterinarian and Marine Resources Director Lisa Abbo
"Take Five" is an occasional feature in which we pose five questions to an MBL community member about their career, dreams, and passions. Here we profile Lisa Abbo. Abbo has been MBL Veterinarian since 2017 and was named the Director of the Marine Resources Department in July 2023.
Can you tell me about your career and how you ended up at the MBL?
I did my undergraduate degree in biology [with a concentration] in ecology behavior and evolution at the University of California, San Diego. I knew I liked animals and liked biology and science, but it took me a little while to realize what would be a good route for me. I went to veterinary school at Kansas State University and that’s really where I developed that love of working with multiple species that would follow me through my career.
My two favorite rotations were anesthesia and exotics—basically any animal that’s not a traditional pet or livestock. And anytime you work with an exotic animal you have to sedate them because it’s hard to do anything with them when they’re fully awake, so it was a great combination. I got a Master’s degree in Anesthesia because I wanted to get some research experience and that’s where I really developed my love for research.
My family moved to the Cape and I knew there were lots of opportunities for marine aquatic medicine here on the Cape so I started reaching out to people about opportunities. In 2014, I started as a vet part-time at both the Woods Hole Aquarium and at the Capron Park Zoo in Attleboro. That was a really nice combo. I got a ton of experience working with fish and other animals—all kinds of crazy stuff like lions and lemurs and kangaroos. It was a really good learning experience.
During that time, I got to know the vet who was here at the MBL. When I found out that she was leaving her position, I was like, “that's my job.” So I went for it and luckily got it and never looked back. I started here in 2017.
Did you always want to be a vet?
That's a good question, actually, because, no, I did not always want to be a vet. There are a lot of vets who have known that’s what they wanted to be since they were five-years-old, but I was definitely not like that.
Although my mom would say it was no shock to her at all that this is the profession I chose, but I didn't have that clear vision. I think one of the reasons for that is that I was interested in so many things. I’m still like that, it’s very easy for something to catch my interest. It’s one of the reasons why I like the MBL so much—because it’s so varied and I get to exercise my curiosity a lot.
Can you walk us through a typical day in the life of the MBL Veterinarian?
In the summer, when it’s busiest, there's a lot of running around from building to building. I’m helping researchers with any sort of controlled substances they need for their experiments, for example. A lot of that stuff is kept under lock and key. I also get lots of emails with people just looking for advice on working with different types of animals and helping provide any specific training or solutions for that. I do anesthesia training for animals undergoing experimentation. And of course I respond to any medical issues the animals are having—fish lesions, swim bladder issues, things like that.
We build a lot of [animal] life support systems for people, and I help with those—making sure the designs of the water quality and tanks will accommodate the animals properly, and then monitoring the systems once they’re built to make sure there’s no build up of anything that could be dangerous to the animals.
There are public and school group tours of the MRC tank room, which is always really fun. In the winter, I also teach high school courses, which I love.
The other big part of my job is just managing people. Lots of people think they want to be a vet because they love animals and don’t like working with people but it’s actually the opposite—every animal comes with a person you have to deal with. At the MBL, I don’t deal with pet owners, but the animal caretaker, the researchers, the research assistants are all responsible for these animals and I deal with all of them.
I'm a problem solver. I think, as a vet, you have to be. Unlike a human doctor, you can’t just say “oh I’ve never worked on that species before.”
I’m also directly involved with collections for the first time now that I’ve taken over as director, which I love. I'm learning a lot about our local species that I didn’t know before. Especially the little worms and sponges, things that the vet isn’t normally involved with, but I feel like I’m learning something new every day.
As the MBL strategically develops new and novel research organisms, does that offer any challenges to your work as a vet or in animal collection?
It can definitely be challenging. Just yesterday, I got a call about someone who wants a very specific type of worm. I had figure out exactly what they were talking about and work with our collecting team to find out: Have they ever heard of it? Do we have it here? Can we find it for them? What are the alternatives?
Sometimes people will put in requests for specimens that we may not be able to get or may not be local, but they don’t know about the substitutions. That research question, whatever they’re trying to answer, could be answered even better with a different organism.
That’s definitely a challenge with novel organisms, but it’s also the fun part because you learned something new and I love learning new things!
I learned something new just this morning about Caprellidae, which are a little skeleton shrimp that are found on all the lines and docks and things. I had no idea there were two distinct species, a summer species and a winter species. I’ve been working with these little things and teaching with them for years and I had no idea there were two species! So stuff like that is challenging, but that’s the fun part!
It’s really about collaborating with people and knowing that you don’t know everything and have to ask someone else for help or knowledge. And I have no problem doing that. I think that's super important characteristic in this job—you can't have too much of an ego, because if you do, you'll get crushed every day.
You were a Edwin Barbey Charitable Trust Striped Bass Fellow this summer, specifically focusing on anesthesia research. Can you talk about that work?
So that was a really fun opportunity to use my anesthesia skills. So tagging in fish is typically done without any anesthetic, partly because it's very quick but partly because of a lack of training on behalf of the fisheries biologists doing the work.
Veterinarians aren’t usually involved in those kinds of projects, but when veterinarians are consulted, they recommend using anesthesia for animal welfare and also for safe handling, especially if it’s a really strong fish that may have spines or teeth.
So I wanted to test the hypothesis that fish who were provided anesthesia while tagged would stick around the area. Since we were tagging these fish, we track their movements around Eel Pond and around the docks. So it was the perfect opportunity to be able to follow the fish to see what they did to see if there is any behavioral difference between fish, who would have been given anesthesia and fish who hadn't.
We are still waiting to get the data downloaded from the receiver so I don't yet know what the answer is but it went really well. I’m really eager to see what the results are for the movement of the fish to see if there's any difference between the fish that were anesthetized and the ones that weren’t.
You took over as Director of the MBL Marine Resources Department in July. That includes the Marine Resources Center (MRC) Do you have a vision for the future of the MRC?
My immediate plans are really just to increase our outreach both to the MBL community and the public. So I want to continue to develop the education area with the Touch Tank, and our public MRC areas and maybe incorporate tours that go to other parts of the MBL to see what other Centers are doing. We want to really make sure we’re keeping up with the science that goes on here. I think it’s really important to make sure the public who live here in Woods Hole or are visiting can get a chance to see what goes on and learn how cool the work is as well as learn about the legacy and scientific history of the place.
I want to keep building the MBL community and make sure the people who work here are connected to the work we do outside of their own work. By bringing those people out on The Gemma for collecting trips or will classroom trips they can get reinvigorated about the MBL and see what everyone is working on and experiencing.
In the long-term, I want to really ramp up our specimens and make sure we’re using any local species to the best of our ability, including introducing local species to researchers as they come to the MBL.
A great example is this summer we had a new Advanced Research Training Course called the Biology of Aging. And we worked with them to introduce them to local species that might work for their course—for them the quahog worked really well because it’s an incredibly long-lived species. Quahogs are some of the longest live species known. They can live over 250 years and some people even suggest they could live as long as 500 years. So that species was perfect for that course.
Making sure we’re informed about the local species will help us find an organism a researcher might not even know they are looking for. They’re trying to find the answers to specific questions and we might be able to present them with a local Woods Hole species and say ‘this organism might be perfectly suited to answer your question.’