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Emily Hanks '10 spends her summer at the Mystic Aquarium

Emily Hanks '10 with 'Inuk' at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration.
Emily Hanks '10 with 'Inuk' at the Mystic Aquarium & Institute for Exploration.

This summer Emily Hanks '10 is getting paid to work with a beluga whale named Inuk - only, she calls it "enrichment."

"Enrichment is basically anything that breaks up the whale´s day," says Hanks, one of the majority of students who take advantage of the College's unique internship program. The program, which has been highlighted by USA Today and Wall Street Journal, allows students to work with their dream organizations, even those that might not typically accept interns.

Hanks, a biology and psychology double major who is interning at the Mystic Aquarium, gets up bright and early to help with the aquarium's three beluga whales. After she is done "enriching" all three, she turns her focus to Inuk, the male beluga serving as the subject of a behavioral research project she is conducting while at the aquarium.

Her project will increase researchers' knowledge of beluga breeding behavior and may benefit the training that the Aquarium does for artificial insemination, said Justin Richard, a 2003 graduate of Connecticut College and Hanks's mentor at the aquarium.

Hanks feeds the whales and provides visual, audio and interactive enrichment - like ringing bells, producing wild beluga sounds, using mirrors, dancing and even getting right in the water to desensitize the whale to any stimuli they might encounter when guests come to visit.

"I have the chance to rub the whale down all over its body, give it tongue rubs and I've even been able to give a whale a hug," she said.

Hanks, who has volunteered at the aquarium since freshman year, hopes to turn her experience into an independent study, just as her mentor did when he was a student at the College.

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July 16, 2009