Before even beginning his senior year, Michael Vrbanac, Wittenberg class of 2024, is already prepared to delve into his future career.
A biology major pursuing a minor in marine science, Vrbanac, from Milford, Ohio, has more experience than most under his belt thanks to internships, summer research, and a semester abroad, placing him steps ahead toward his goal of becoming a marine scientist. His journey started two years ago when he began working with Richard Phillips, associate professor of biology, on a summer research project to study the local spotted turtle population.
“For the past two summers, I worked as a research assistant in Dr. Phillips’ lab conducting population assessments of spotted turtles at various fens in the southwest Ohio area,” said Vrbanac, who also serves as president of Wittenberg’s Speleological Society (caving club). “We conducted mark recapture surveys using traps and tracked habitat use with radio telemetry.”
Vrbanac enjoyed working with the local population of turtles and remains grateful to Phillips for the opportunity, noting that the work in Phillips’ lab and the research overall has helped him in other areas, too.
“I would like to thank Dr. Phillips for allowing me to conduct research in his lab and for his encouragement and support, along with the Department of Biological and Environmental Sciences,” Vrbanac said.
Inspired by this experience, Vrbanac decided to venture even further into the marine life, so he spent last spring semester taking advantage of Wittenberg’s long-time partnership with Duke University to study sea turtles at its marine lab in Beaufort, North Carolina.
“Going into college, I knew that I was passionate about the marine sciences and wanted to pursue that field,” Vrbanac said. “The lab is located on an island, and it was amazing to spend that much time with marine science professors and students surrounded by the ocean.”
Vrbanac’s first class was a comparative physiology course of marine organisms, where he focused on all types of animals living in the ocean. He also took a class titled Drones in Marine Biology, Ecology, and Conservation.
“We studied the applications of drones in the field and even got to build and fly a drone,” he said. “Then I did a four-week independent study focused on sea turtles with Dr. Matthew Godfrey, the sea turtle biologist for the state of North Carolina. My last class, ‘Biology and Conservation of Sea Turtles,’ included a 10-day trip to Puerto Rico and St. Croix, where we helped with in-water green sea turtle surveys and conducted night patrols on the beach. I was able to see a 900-pound leatherback sea turtle nesting, which was super cool.”
The experience has further solidified Vrbanac’s passion for the field of marine science, specifically sea turtles. “This is something that I want to pursue into the future. I have also learned how important experience is in this field, and I’m extremely grateful to Wittenberg for allowing me to gain experience early on in my marine science journey.”
Yet his research experience didn’t stop there. Through his work at Wittenberg and at the Duke Marine Lab, Vrbanac was able to land a summer internship working as a biological technician with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service in the Savannah Coastal Refuges Complex on Blackbeard Island National Wildlife Refuge in Georgia.
“Blackbeard Island is a major nesting area for loggerhead sea turtles, although we do get the occasional green and leatherback sea turtle as well,” he said. “We conduct beach surveys every morning at sunrise where we record any nesting activity. When we find a nest, we cover it with a protective screen to prevent predators from eating the eggs and take a sample for DNA analysis. This position with the U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service has allowed me to receive firsthand experience working with sea turtles. I hope to continue my education in graduate school focusing on sea turtle biology and conservation.”
As he looks ahead, Vrbanac will also always look back with gratitude for the doors Wittenberg opened for him.
“My experiences at Wittenberg have helped me to realize what my passion is and given me invaluable tools and experience to help pursue that passion.”