From shark trainer to role model

November 11, 2020 — Animal Behavior was hands down the favorite science class Amanda Hodo ’14 took at Grinnell College though Introduction to Acting has turned out to be quite useful as well.

Hodo, now an aquarium biologist, manages the Aquarium Conservation Lab at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium in Sarasota, Florida. She makes sure animals are getting everything they need to have healthy and fulfilling lives, in addition to developing breeding and conservation programs.

“The Animal Behavior course was eye opening and there was never a dull moment,” Hodo says. “There’s so much wacky animal behavior. It gave us an idea of behaviors of birds and mammals. And I found myself wanting to know more.”

Less than a decade later, Hodo has wholeheartedly embraced roles that educate and inform aquarium visitors and others about marine life. The latest example came in April when she was featured on CBS’s Mission Unstoppable. The segment shows Hodo training sharks and breeding neon gobies, small fish that help improve the health of their tankmates by eating dead skin cells and leftover bits of food. A CBS crew spent an entire day filming Hodo in August 2019 for the segment, which was edited down to about four minutes.

Wearing her scuba gear, Amanda Hodo interacts with a goliath grouper.
Wearing her scuba gear, Amanda Hodo ’14  interacts with a goliath grouper.

“I was really excited with the way that they highlighted the shark training because that's something that our guests really enjoy, and people who haven’t been to Mote may not have realized sharks can be trained in such a way,” Hodo says. “I also was excited to be shown in such a magnificent setting on TV in scuba gear because of the visibility implications.

“I've met countless guests and have talked to a lot of young minority teens that don’t think that they could scuba dive,” Hodo adds. “It’s amazing to get such to get good feedback from teens and young adults that look similar to me. Some have told me that they had never seen a Black scuba diver before. Some don’t know how to swim at all.”

In addition to her primary roles, Hodo also serves as a mentor in Mote’s SciGirls program, which aims to help girls explore science, technology, engineering, and math career opportunities. She also participated in a Black History Month chat that celebrated African Americans’ contributions to marine science.

“Visibility and trying to represent minority women in a career that normally doesn’t have very many of them is a really amazing thing to be a part of,” she says. “It can also be really stressful. I put a lot of pressure on myself sometimes, but it is ultimately a really great opportunity to showcase marine science and hopefully inspire the next generation to consider this as a career.”

Hodo saw herself in a mentorship role even when she was in college.

“Mentoring presented itself in a lot of different ways once I was at Mote by collaborating with our education department and talking to classes that they had come in,” she says. “I just really enjoy and get a lot of fulfillment out of it, and as more opportunities started popping up, I kept saying yes to them.”

Amanda Hodo ’14 squeezes a tube in the conservation lab at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.
Amanda Hodo ’14 works in the conservation lab at Mote Marine Laboratory & Aquarium.

In addition to the Aquarium Conservation Lab at Mote, Hodo is responsible for the nutrition and wellbeing of the animals in six other exhibits. Hodo also works closely with Mote’s content team to develop interpretative content for the Aquarium’s displays.

“One point of us having the aquarium is to connect guests to the natural world,” Hodo says. “I think one of the great things about Mote is each display tells stories of the organism and how it interacts with its habitat. For the multi-species areas, the displays tell guests how they live together.”

The aquarium is currently open with enhanced health and safety measures in place.

“When guests are here they learn more about challenges in the natural word, and that’s when people are most compelled to think about what they can do to impact it,” she adds. “It’s important for us to help guests understand the complexity of these animals’ lives. When we can, we display animals bred in house to share their story. Guests love seeing babies, too.”

In addition to majoring in biology at Grinnell, Hodo played soccer, worked as a Phonathon manager and caller, took part in the Latin American Ensemble, and was on the Pioneer Diversity Council – a group of student-athletes who address diversity topics. She says Grinnell prepared her with life lessons, such as the ability to work on a team and advocating for herself.

As an alumna, Hodo has continued to stay engaged. She serves as a class fund director, hosts students for externships, and is part of her class committee planning for Reunion 2021.

“I’ve always been really heavily involved with the College,” she says. “I had such an amazing time and experience at Grinnell, and I feel really lucky that I had that experience. I think back to Grinnell with such fondness and good times. I also think about all of the alumni support. I heavily relied on financial aid. I learned through Phonathon about how alumni support and giving directly connects with the student experience. I see the value and staying connected with the College and encouraging others to do so too.”

—by Jeremy Shapiro

For your information:

In 2018, Hodo was a winner in the Association of Zoos and Aquariums Find Our Heroes contest, with the help of Grinnellians who voted for her online. AZA searched for four heroes, passionate about their work and conservation, to star in their next public service announcement. Watch the video Hodo submitted for the contest.

To read more alumni news, check out our news archive.