Westmont Magazine A Whale of an Internship
Student Interns Assist in a Rare Dissection of a Killer Whale
Two biology students interning at the Santa Barbara Museum of Natural History got an unexpected opportunity when a baby orca washed up on a Ventura beach. Matt Marinkovich ’07 and John Vicory ’06 assisted some of the world’s top veterinary pathologists in a day-long dissection to find out how the killer whale died.
“I just expected to do their busy work,” Matt says. “But I got to cut out some tissue from the back. That’s not something you do every day.” Though only a few days old when it died, the orca measured nearly eight feet. “It was a baby, but I’ve never seen a heart, lungs or liver that big,” he says.
John works in the museum’s invertebrate lab. He was cataloging various species of California beetles — until the orca arrived. Matt told him about the upcoming necropsy, and they took the day off to assist with the dissection.
“We were just standing back,” John recalls, “and they said, ‘Come feel this. This is what we think is going on. This is damaged tissue. This is the remnants of a pelvic bone.’”
The students got the positions through Professor Beth Horvath, who interned at the museum as a Westmont student 30 years ago. Today she works as a research associate there.
She recalls Matt’s excitement. “Words could not express it,” she says. “Ordinarily, things are not that exciting. The museum has an amazing collection, so there’s a phenomenal amount of cataloging. But the baby orca brought that to a screeching halt.”
Matt says the orca experience may shift his career path toward veterinary research with larger animals. “I felt it was something I could enjoy doing,” he says. Coincidentally, he spends summers next to the world’s most famous orca, Shamu, doing educational work at Sea World in San Diego.
John hopes to go to graduate school, become a worldwide ecologist and eventually settle in as a biology professor. While he may not work with insects or orcas later in life, the necropsy had a profound impact on his view of wildlife.
“Beetles are so small, they get overlooked a lot of times,” he says. “Since few people have high-powered microscopes, they can’t really see how beautiful the beetles are. I’ve definitely come to appreciate the smaller things in life that are as beautiful but unnoticed.”