Exceptional Educational Opportunities


Ross Vet Student Gets Hands-On Experience with Endangered Species, Works with Renowned Conversationalist

November 17, 2008—(North Brunswick, NJ)—Kirsten Thomas, a fourth semester veterinary student, is getting one-of-a-kind educational opportunities during her time at Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine. For the past year she has been working as a research assistant for Dr. Kimberly Stewart at the St. Kitts Sea Turtle Monitoring Network (SKSTMN), and she recently participated in a 2-week externship at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center (GSTC) where she had the chance to shadow Dr. Terry Norton, a renowned veterinarian and conversationalist with more than 20 years of experience working with zoos, aquaria and free-ranging wildlife.

The SKSTMN is dedicated to the creation of a sustainable conservation program focused on the sea turtle populations of St. Kitts. The project works specifically with leatherback, hawksbill, and green sea turtle species, all of which are listed by the International Union for Conservation of Nature as endangered to critically endangered and nest along the shores of St. Kitts.

“We have a night-monitoring program that surveys the main leatherback nesting beach hourly from 8 p.m. to 6 a.m. throughout the leatherback nesting season,” Kirsten explained. “All nesting leatherbacks receive a full physical in which morphological measurements and blood samples are taken, and all individuals are tagged. Any nests that are in danger of being washed away are relocated to a safer area of the beach.”

She went on to say that the goal of the program is to determine the health and stability of the St. Kitts leatherback nesting populations, and establish what risks these turtles and their hatchlings face.

“We currently have a very low hatch success on one of our major nesting beaches, so we are seeking to determine the cause of this poor success rate,” she said.

Kirsten is also the in-water tagging coordinator for the SKSTMN.

“The in-water tagging program works with the juvenile green and hawksbill sea turtle populations that forage along the reefs off our coast. Tagging involves teams of snorkelers who spot and catch sea turtles, and then bring them to shore.”

Once on the shore, each turtle that is caught receives a full physical, which includes morphological measurements and blood and tissue samples being taken prior to release.

“Sea turtles are a keystone species within their environment, and their health can provide a great deal of information about the health of the ecosystem as a whole,” she explained. “One of the main goals of this project is to create a baseline blood profile for this population. We are also sending tissue samples for many of our turtles to a Ph.D. student in Barbados who is using the mitochondrial DNA from our samples to determine maternal lineages within populations throughout the Caribbean.”

Located on Jekyll Island, GA, the Georgia Sea Turtle Center provides rehabilitation treatment for injured sea turtles and other wildlife; conducts research and professional training in wildlife medicine, husbandry, biology and education; and offers educational programs for the public.


“The GSTC is one of the premier sea turtle hospital and rehabilitation centers in the U.S.,” Kirsten noted. “The SKSTMN and the GSTC are affiliated via exchange of research and educational opportunities. The GSTC International Team began an exchange program with the SKSTMN this past leatherback season, sending five team members to St. Kitts to assist with leatherback monitoring.”

In her work with Dr. Norton, Kirsten was able to learn about and participate in much of the daily sea turtle husbandry and care. “I was also permitted to accompany a group of biologists from the Georgia Department of Natural Resources on a dolphin skin biopsying trip, and spent a day with Dr. Norton on St. Catherine’s island participating in the care of a variety of exotic species,” she said.

Kirsten credits Ross for providing her with these exceptional opportunities.

“As a vet student, working with Dr. Stewart and the SKSTMN has offered me a unique opportunity to take what I have learned in the classroom and to utilize my education out into the field. I have been able to sit in on surgical procedures, assist in necropsies, and have been trained on how to perform physicals, blood draws, and other sampling techniques on these endangered and critically endangered turtle species,” she said.

“I have been given externship opportunities with the Georgia Sea Turtle Center that otherwise would never have been possible. I have also been able to assist in public outreach and education, which has given me a broader and more integrated experience as a foreign student. I have been able to meet, work with, and become friends with many members of the local community, which I would never have been able to do without this project. Working with the SKSTMN has allowed me to learn and do things above and beyond that of the classical veterinary education.”

She added, “My time at the Georgia Sea Turtle Center with Dr. Norton was enormously educational in reptilian clinical care and basic husbandry. It offered me hands on experience in a variety of treatments, procedures and sampling techniques, while also training me in the basic husbandry of several reptile species. I have been able to apply this experience, as well as much of what I have learned in the classroom, to the field while working with Dr. Stewart and the SKSTMN,” she said. “Dr. Stewart allows me to be hands-on and to learn through experience with her support and guidance. Along with teaching me clinical skills, Dr. Stewart has helped me expand my knowledge of research techniques and data organization.”

The SKSTMN has long-term goals within the community and plans to be an integral part of the conservation efforts on St. Kitts far into the future, and Kirsten hopes to maintain her connection with the project long term, well after graduating from Ross University.

About Ross University School of Veterinary Medicine

Ross University was founded in 1978 and is a provider of medical and veterinary education offering doctor of medicine and doctor of veterinary medicine degree programs. The School of Veterinary Medicine is located in St. Kitts. The School of Medicine is located in Dominica, West Indies, with a new clinical education center scheduled to open in Freeport, Grand Bahama, in January 2009.

The first seven semesters of pre-clinical training at the School of Veterinary Medicine are taught in St. Kitts over a 28-month period. Semesters eight through ten are spent completing clinical studies at one of 22 Ross affiliated, AVMA–accredited U.S. veterinary schools. Ross University students are held to high standards and must pass the same licensing exams as graduates of United States schools.

Ross University’s administrative offices are located in North Brunswick, NJ. For more information about Ross University, visit or call 732.509.4600.

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