Profile: Mercedes Mendez
It's not very often that childhood dreams become careers. However, senior psychology major Mercedes Mendez is working to make her vision of becoming a dolphin trainer reality.
Working with animals has been the Picayune native's ultimate goal since attending a show at Sea World years ago.
"When I was around 5, we were at the dolphin show, and I looked at my mom and said, 'That's what I want to do.' And I've always come back to that," Mendez said.
After interning at Florida's Clearwater Marine Aquarium in summer 2012, Mendez applied to intern with the U.S. Navy Marine Mammal Program. She was advised through the application process by Mississippi State psychology professor Gary Bradshaw, who had previous experience working with dolphins, as well.
"It was really cool to have the help of a professor who had worked with dolphins, especially in the psychology department, no less," she said.
Mendez was one of 21 students chosen from across the country to participate in the 16-week program this past summer in San Diego, Calif.
The program is designed to give undergraduate students an in-depth look into the care and training of marine mammals, specifically bottlenose dolphins and sea lions.
"We provided support to program staff through hands-on experience with marine mammals, and we spent a lot of time helping with training sessions," Mendez said. "A lot of cleaning and diet preparation were involved. But it was worth every minute, because I got to spend time with such amazing animals and knowledgeable people."
Mendez found that her coursework at Mississippi State especially equipped her for the training aspect of the program.
"Things like behavior modification and reinforcement schedules have a lot more to do with training than actual marine biology," she said. "I learned the reasoning behind these things in my psychology classes, and when I came into the internship, I saw those things in action."
Her favorite part was observing the animals and trainers out at sea.
"Going out on the boats and working with the dolphins was so much fun. The bond the trainer and the dolphin have is awesome, and it was so cool to see them interacting together," she said.
Upon her graduation in May 2014, Mendez hopes to continue pursuing the dream she had as a little girl.
"I encourage anyone with out-of-the-ordinary career ambitions to embrace them," she said. "Be passionate, and go for it full speed ahead."Writer: Morgan Tubbs | Photo: Megan Bean
Next week … Xavier Harris !