Woman standing at fish tank

Student Success|

College of Arts and Sciences

icon of a calendarNovember 23, 2020

icon of a pencilBy Kelli M. Warshefski

A Life Among Fish

Biology alumna pursues her dream career caring for the wildlife at Belle Isle Aquarium

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Robert Hall

The gallery is quiet, with just a faint hum of lights warming up. The morning sun streams in from antique skylights across green opalite glass tiles that adorn an arched ceiling. The aquarist makes her rounds, peering through the glass of each tank, silently greeting her gill-bearing coworkers, and breathing in the peace of the morning.

Amanda Murray, CAS ‘06 and ‘11, is living her best life.

As an aquarist at Belle Isle Aquarium, Murray spends her days in the historical Detroit building, caring for a number of creatures from piranhas to hissing cockroaches; a career the alumna was made for, with her lifelong devotion toward animals and conservation.

“Biology is basically one of the first sciences you experience as a young kid; it’s the life around you,” Murray says. “That’s what drew me to it. I loved animals and I grew up spending a lot of time up north, fishing and collecting bugs. It’s just always something I wanted to do.”

Woman standing in front of aquarium tank
Woman cleaning out tank
Woman walking around Belle Isle Aquarium
Woman standing in pond feeding fish
Koi fish
Woman looking at fish tank

One of Murray’s fondest childhood memories took place in her family’s cottage in Traverse City, where as a child she would pull along a small red wagon, stopping only to pick up, examine and place bugs in her wagon. A trait that Murray’s mother who, although was not a fan of “creepy crawlies,” encouraged. This became a benchmark and source of empowerment for the aspiring biologist’s compassion for all living creatures.

“I think it’s really important, especially for little girls in biology, to have a positive female role model. When they see something like a bug or a spider they’re going to look at their mom’s reaction and if their reaction is ‘ew that’s gross’ they might adopt that. My mom never discouraged me because I enjoyed them and I think that’s really what influenced me strongly in loving all animals,” Murray explains.

Murray would grow up to further explore this passion at Oakland University, where she earned her bachelor’s in biology and immediately went on to pursue her master’s with a focus in ecology and animal behavior. While at OU, her passion for conservation was fostered by faculty and through research, including her work on wasp behavior and how it affects the productivity of a colony. Murray found herself in her element, examining and caring for these underappreciated creatures.

Woman standing in koi pond

“My research experience gave me confidence in putting forth my own ideas and experiments,” says Murray. “It allowed me to explore not only how to properly conduct a scientific study, but also how to analyze the data and present it to peers. I think the research I did at OU was a valuable experience in my career.”

After receiving her master’s, Murray began work at the Michigan Science Center. But, although she enjoyed the work there, she yearned to work with animals. So in 2018, when a position opened up at the Belle Isle Aquarium, Murray jumped at the chance to apply and shortly thereafter began her new career path.

As an aquarist, Murray utilizes her training in biology, but notes that the job requires more than just knowledge in the life sciences – from understanding physics and the mechanics of tank plumbing, to chemistry and the composition of elements in proper water filtration systems, an aquarist needs to know “a little bit of everything.” In her day-to-day tasks, for example, Murray conducts behavioral analyses, checks and maintains the water quality, temperature and pumps on the tanks, ensures all vital equipment is properly functioning, cleans the tanks and feeds the animals. Additionally, Murray provides enrichment for the fish — a crucial component of their health.

“Fish have big personalities, even within the same species,” Murray explains. “They need interactions, which have been lacking lately [due to the building’s closure during the COVID-19 pandemic]. So, I have to make sure they stay mentally stimulated by changing around the things inside their tank, hiding food, and interacting with them through the glass.”

“I want to make sure my fish are content and that I take the best care of them that I can,” she says.

Gertie, a tropical gar, plays peek-a-boo while Murray wipes down the outside of her tank. A school of crappies, native of Michigan and one of Murray’s favorite types of fish, follow Murray’s hand as she slides it along the glass. The stingrays are fed by hand, and frequently squirt Murray with water while they impatiently wait to be fed. To provide additional interactions, Murray also enlists the help of her pet hissing cockroaches, which she sticks to the outside of the tank.

“I love my job. I love my coworkers — and not just the human ones,” Murray says. “The fish are my coworkers as well, and I love that I can share my passion with others and help people learn about and fall in love with all animals.”

“We share this planet not just with each other but with other species,” she continues. “That’s why conservation is so vital to me because I want these resources, these habitats, these animals to be around for the future. It’s really important to us at the Belle Isle Aquarium and our mission to help with conservation."

Discover more about Amanda Murray and the role biology plays in conservation.

About the Belle Isle Aquarium

The Belle Isle Aquarium is the oldest aquarium in the country, opening its doors in 1904. The building has undergone several renovations, replacing tanks and updating water filtration systems, but the architectural integrity of famed Detroit architect, Albert Kahn, remains intact. While the majority of aquatic life is found inside, there is also a large Koi pond and garden outside. While the building is currently closed for safety precautions during the COVID-19 pandemic, the Belle Isle Aquarium continues to promote conservation efforts in the community and provide crucial aid in local projects, including a contract with the Department of Natural Resources (DNR) in the rehabilitation of local sturgeon. The aquarium receives young sturgeon from local fisheries, raises them, and sends them back once they are grown to be released into the wild, increasing the sturgeon’s likelihood of survival.

“It’s a great program,” Murray explains. “Sturgeons were almost gone from Michigan, and now they’re coming back, even in the Detroit river nearby. That’s something that aquariums do that’s really important, is to continue species and help them when they are endangered or extinct in the wild.”

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