Keeping an aquarium afloat.
Tonya Clauss was a computer science major for her first two years of college before she realized her love of animals would take her in a different direction.
Today, with four degrees from the University of Florida, she’s the chief veterinarian at the Georgia Aquarium in Atlanta.
Born in Fort Lauderdale, Clauss grew up with many pets, including dogs, cats, fish, birds, rabbits, goats and horses. By the time she was 7, she already knew she wanted to be a veterinarian.
After two years of studying computers at Florida State University, she transferred to UF and got her bachelor’s degree in animal science in 1996. She followed with another bachelor’s degree in wildlife ecology, a doctorate in veterinary medicine and a master’s degree in environmental engineering sciences focusing on wetlands ecology.
Clauss said she loves working with the variety of animals at the aquarium.
“At this point in my life, I’d prefer to broaden my species experiences to include an even greater diversity,” she said. “I do not feel that I’d be as fulfilled in my work if I only focused on one or just a couple.”
As chief veterinarian, she oversees a team of veterinarians and technicians who are responsible for the clinical care of all the animals at the aquarium, which includes preventative medicine, response to any medical problems and a fair amount of desk work. Typically, she works about 60 hours a week but may put in 80 hours a week or more when there are critically ill animals.
“Much of the time, it doesn’t matter how hard we try to standardize things or create routine—the animals dictate how our schedule unfolds,” she said.
In addition to caring for the animals, Clauss has conducted research with a pain-relieving medication in loggerhead sea turtles hoping to find the right dosage to ease the pain that many sea turtles endure as a result of serious injuries from propellers, fishing equipment, shark bites and other causes.
Clauss said UF’s well-respected zoo, wildlife and aquatic medicine programs helped prepare her for the day-to-day veterinary aspects of her job. In addition, her experience as an employee for the College of Veterinary Medicine gave her the laboratory and preliminary management skills for her initial position as the laboratory supervisor and associate veterinarian and now as chief veterinarian. She credits Dr. Ruth Francis-Floyd for helping her obtain a solid foundation in fish medicine and giving her the chance to network with others in the aquatics field.
Clauss said she is most proud of the innovation and creative techniques for which she has become known.
“Figuring out new things, introducing new techniques and in general dealing with situations that are mentally and sometimes physically challenging are why I do what I do,” she said.