Southampton School District Hires Aquarist

Southampton Union Free School District
Rachael Patane, Southampton High School’s new aquarist, comes to the district after spending a year breeding shellfish under the Cornell Cooperative Extension, and being the primary aquarist for the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead.
Southampton High School’s new aquarist Rachael Patane previous worked as a field technician for Cornell Cooperative Extension. Independent/Rachael Patane

Rachael Patane thought she wanted to study medicine. Little did she know a college class on sharks would change her course.

Now, the Holbrook resident will be joining the marine science team at Southampton High School, bringing with her a wealth of experience she will use to advance a department that became the first in the world to raise shrimp gobies in a laboratory setting earlier this year.

“I am extremely honored to have this opportunity to work in Southampton and share my passion and experience in a marine environment with the students,” Patane said. “I hope to achieve many ‘firsts’ in aquaculture with the students and bring a new focus on cephalopods to the curriculum.”

The new aquarist replaces Dan Elefante, who had to step down from his position following a family move. Unlike her predecessor, whose expertise was in finfish, or aquatic animals with spines, Patane specializes in cephalopods, any member of the molluscan class Cephalopoda, like squid, octopus, and cuttlefish.

“Most of my breeding experience in an aquaculture setting is with those animals,” she said. “Working with invertebrates will be a new experience for kids who already had Dan who can use what he taught them and apply it to cephalopods.”

Prior to taking the position with Southampton, Patane was a shellfish field technician with Cornell Cooperative Extension of Suffolk County. In that role, she focused on shellfish farming on floating upwelling systems in different areas across Long Island with poor water quality. The bi-valves were used to treat the water bodies before being moved to sanctuary sites to increase local shellfish populations. As a research student, she developed, performed, presented, and published an independent study on the effect of epibionts, organisms that live on the surface of other living organisms, and how they affect the abundance and richness of fish.

“We are pleased to welcome Rachael Patane to our Southampton School District family,” said Superintendent of Schools Dr. Nicholas Dyno. “Her background in aquaculture will certainly serve as an inspiration to our students.”

Greg Metzger, who oversees the school’s 2600-square-foot wet lab featuring a greenhouse, algae culture room, and 30 species of fish, is eager to have her on board.

“She comes to us with tremendous fishkeeping skills and a broad knowledge base,” he said. “We’re also very excited to capitalize on her skills and interest in shark research.”

Rachael Patane working with sharks at the Long Island Aquarium. Independent/Rachael Patane

Passion For Sharks

In fact, that’s how Metzger first met Patane back in 2016. At the time, Patane worked as the primary aquarist for the Long Island Aquarium in Riverhead, where she oversaw the facility’s largest exhibits. She was involved in the aquaculture of marine ornamental fish, was a lead shark dive instructor, and served as the aquarium’s intern coordinator.

Metzger, whose ongoing work with the South Fork Natural History Museum and Ocearch involves tagging juvenile great white sharks, also known as young-of-the-year white sharks, had received a $12,000 CATS-Cam tag, and asked Patane if he could place it on one of her full-grown, 10-foot sand tiger sharks to test the system.

“I was all for it,” she said. “The whole reason I’m in this field is because of my passion for sharks. When I took that college course, it was the only thing that ever fascinated me. That position helped me get an even more hands-on experience working with sharks.”

That’s something Metzger is hoping to capitalize on. The teacher said, at first, he was overjoyed there wasn’t even a remote whisper or hint of the district balking at fulfilling Elefante’s position, but then came the competitive hiring process, with a robust pile of highly-qualified candidates from which to choose. Part of what made Patane stand out was the possibility of offering diver certifications to students. Metzger is also teaching a marine research course for the first time this year, and thinks the new aquarist’s cephalopod and shark background could tie into that, too.

“We’re very excited about modifying certain sections of the lab based on her expertise,” he said. “Cephalopods offer not just a difference in the aquaculture component, they have varied life cycles, and different larval phases, but the techniques to raising them. It opens the door for a tremendous amount of research projects. We could set up controlled experiments to look at their intelligence, or their ability to camouflage, changing color and texture to adapt to their environments.”

Sharing Her Knowledge, Network

Patane said she even discussed creating a scuba club, or incorporating that into a summer class. She holds several certifications with the Professional Association of Diving Instructors, including open water scuba instructor, enriched air diver, and full-face mask diver, in addition to being certified as a sidemount diver, ocean technology systems guardian full-face mask service technician, and in CPR/first aid. She’s also hoping to share her network with students looking to pursue jobs in the field.

“I feel I can answer questions students might have, whether it be about the lab, going the research route, or working in the field,” she said. “We all have some sort of connection to the water on Long island, but if these kids decided they want to pursue a career in marine science or make a hobby of it, having them get dive certified while they’re still in high school only builds their résumés.”

While learning a new lab will take some time, Patane said Elefante, a friend of hers, left detailed notes, and she’s already been in contact with him to talk her through some of what goes into maintaining the tanks. The aquarist said she’s ready to start teaching.

“I thought this was the dream job for someone in my field,” Patane said. “I’ve been in the field for seven years now, and when I graduated school I knew this was what I always wanted to do. I don’t know many high schools that have marine classes, let alone a lab like Southampton does, and the fact that I’ve been able to fall into this role is really humbling. I’m honored to be a part of this. I’m hoping to instill the passion I found for the field that I didn’t know I had.”

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