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Laguna celebrates Dr. Alissa Deming of PMMC during Women in Marine Mammal Science month

By DIANNE RUSSELL

Photos by Mary Hurlbut

Although it is not widely known or commemorated, Women in Marine Mammal Science month (May) is nevertheless an important tribute, especially for Laguna Beach and Pacific Marine Mammal Center (PMMC). For two years, Alissa C. Deming, DVM, MS, PhD, has served as vice president of Conservation Medicine and Science at PMMC. She brought a wealth of expertise to her position, which was created by the board of directors to strengthen PMMC’s impact by prioritizing research.

From its beginnings more than 50 years ago – with Co-founder Jim Stauffer’s rescue of one seal and the assistance of Co-founder John Cunningham in building the facility – PMMC has grown to include a vast array of research and educational programs, not only locally but in the U.S. and around the globe.

According to www.oceanconservancy.org, more than half of undergrad marine science degrees today are awarded to women, and women make up the majority of biology graduate students around the country. This is a remarkable accomplishment considering no women were even allowed on research vessels in the U.S. until the 1960s. However, women are still underrepresented in this field, especially in leadership positions (as reported on the Women in Marine Mammal Science website).

“It’s a very male-dominated field,” said Deming. “Until the early 2000s, it was a mix of male and female, but the males tended to be in positions of authority and women were more ‘boots on the ground.’”

laguna celebrates deming close up

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Dr. Alissa Deming

It appears Deming performs both these roles – she’s a VP with her “boots on the ground.”

To assume her position, she moved here right in the middle of the pandemic. When I came here two years ago, it was in the middle of COVID, so I didn’t have a lot of choices of where to live, so I moved to a place in Laguna Niguel sight unseen,” she said. “I just relocated to Laguna two months ago. I love it. I walk the beach (a block away) in the morning before I come to work to reconnect to the ocean. I also walk in the evening when work permits and I love the sunsets. I see a lot of harbor seals at the Montage and sea lions. I live in a great neighborhood and all the homes have individual characteristics. The neighborhood does potlucks and one of my neighbors used to volunteer at PMMC in the 1990s.”

Deming is responsible for the medical care of all in-hospital patients and provides medical care to live dolphins and pinnipeds that strand alive on Orange County beaches – all the way from San Onofre to Seal Beach. Deming’s research efforts are focused on a commonly diagnosed cancer in wild California sea lions. She is also the chair of the Sea Lion Cancer Consortium (SLiCC) and leads the sea lion cancer research at PMMC. Her principal research interest is to study disease patterns in marine mammal populations to better understand the impacts of human and environmental factors on ecosystem health.

laguna celebrates baby elephant seal

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Male northern elephant seal pup named “Rocket” who is approximately 2 months old, was presented to PMMC due to malnutrition (aka starvation) with sand in his stomach. He is well on his way to recovery and is enjoying his pool time, eating well and gaining weight.

Deming admits that she likes to fix things, and that’s one reason she got into marine mammal science. 

Born in South Florida (where there are no seals or sea lions), Deming fell in love with manatees and sea turtles. “Back then I didn’t know there was a field for this. During my undergraduate studies, I had my first experience working with sea turtles and immune suppression in sea turtles and dolphins.”

For Deming’s complete resume, click here.

Sea lions are a critical model for understanding how cancer develops

Deming received her Doctorate in Veterinary Medicine and PhD in Comparative, Diagnostic and Population Medicine from the University of Florida. “While I was working on my PhD, I focused on viruses, in particular the herpesvirus and how it can cause cancer in animals and humans,” she said. “We were finding cancerous tumors caused from the herpesvirus, as a result of compromised environment and contaminants. For the 10 years we’ve been looking at sea lions, we’ve discovered that they have the highest rate of this single type of cancer of any species in the world. Herpes is a good barometer of the impact of environmental contaminants on the health of animals – and humans.”

Affected by the immune system, herpes is the same virus as chicken pox and stays latent in the nerves. It can lay dormant until the immune system is compromised by stress or contaminants. 

After more than three decades of research, scientists have proven that the cancer affecting up to one in four adult California sea lions that received a necropsy at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito, is caused by a sexually transmitted herpesvirus. The cancer, known as sea lion urogenital carcinoma, has clear parallels to cervical cancer in humans and provides a helpful model for human cancer study. Dr. Deming was the lead author of this study while she was a research fellow at that marine mammal center.

laguna celebrates TLC

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These four California sea lion pups (“Cactus,” “Meadow,” “Colcha” and “Trifecta”) are all suffering from malnutrition, pneumonia and one had two fish hooks embedded in her flipper on presentation. They are still in critical condition, being tube fed and on various medications to treat their pneumonia and wounds associated with the embedded fish hooks. 

 “One of the reasons I got a PhD was to pay homage to these animals,” Deming said. “We’ve done so much to the environment to cause this cancer, we need to do something to understand how the process works.”

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When Deming was studying for her PhD, Dr. Frances Gullard – who worked for 25 years at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito and is a research associate at UC Davis – was her mentor. “After I finished my masters, Frances drove home the point that I needed a PhD to do research. She pushed and encouraged me. I don’t know that I would have gotten my PhD without her guidance. I also had a number of female advisers.”

Appointed by President Biden on May 4, 2022, Gulland now serves as chair of the Marine Mammal Conservation Commission. Her focus is the treatment of stranded marine animals and research into the causes of disease in these animals. Gullard also serves as Scientific Adviser for PMMC.

“The confirmation that this is a virally induced cancer combined with the knowledge that contaminants play a significant role in the cancer’s development means that we can use these sea lions as a naturally occurring disease model to better understand how cancer develops and spreads in all species, including humans,” said Deming. “It’s all interconnected. In studying mammals, we can keep the virus in check and use it as a marker. Sadly, by the time the seals and sea lions present here, they’re terminal. There is no cure for this cancer.”

laguna celebrates whale garden

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Whale Bone Garden at PMMC   

Sea lions with higher concentrations of DDT, PCBs and other decades-old chemicals in their blubber were more prone to having the cancer take over their bodies.

A disturbing fact is that DDT, which gets into animal tissue and remains there – building up over time – is also transgenerational in both sea lions and humans. It passes from the sea lion mothers to their pups through breast feeding from the mother’s bloodstream. Another study based in Oakland found that DDT’s hormone-disrupting effects are affecting a new generation of women – passed down from mothers to daughters and now granddaughters.

Devastating events

When asked if there were any cases that particularly got to her, Deming replied, “Effie. In 2012, she was stranded when she was 1 year old and came in. She was unstable, but we were able to get her through it and she was returned to the wild. Then she was rescued again 10 years later and she had cancer.” 

laguna celebrates single sea lion

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Male Pacific harbor seal named “Adrian” is approximately 2 months old and presented due to malnutrition. He has been receiving care at the Pacific Marine Mammal Center for one month and is gaining weight and recovering well.

Donors and volunteers

Deming gives kudos to all the donors and volunteers. “Without the donors and Vice President of Philanthropy Debbie Finster’s ability to raise funds, we couldn’t run our programs.

“Through philanthropic donations, we funded the intern program and they will start new research with the necropsy of whales,” Deming said. “There are only five marine mammal centers on the coast, and 60 people applied for the opportunity. It is a paid stipend position.”

Over a two-year period, they have collected 15,000 to aid in research.

“I learn as much from my students as they learn from me, and there is so much work to be done,” Deming said. “We like to encourage the students’ passion for this crisis. More than 25 vet technicians have come through here, it didn’t create a job, but we inspired 25 to carry on the work.”

Sami ShinderUniversity of Miami, completed her masters research at PMMC, validating a biomarker in the blood of California sea lions that can now be used to diagnose metastatic cancer in sea lions. California sea lions have the highest rate of cancer of any wildlife species. This tool can be used to further our understanding of why these sea lions have such a high rate of cancer. Shinder has completed her master’s degree and will be starting a PhD at UCSD continuing her work on sea lion cancer and understanding the role of contaminants in the cancer development.

Ocean Health Fellows: Emma Newcomb and Shawn Abbey. These fellows assist with post-mortem examination (necropsies) and research throughout our busy stranding season. This is a funded program supported by the Pacific Marine Mammal Center Ocean Club for students to gain more experience in marine mammal medicine and research. These fellows are overseen by Christine Fontaine, who is PMMC’s Research Biologist. 

Veterinary Fellow Dr. Kaylee Brown provides medical care to the sea lions, seals, dolphins and whales taken care of at PMMC. Her fellowship provides advanced training in marine mammal medicine and rehabilitation. She serves as a mentor to visiting graduate students, volunteers and veterinary students that come to PMMC to learn more about marine mammal health and research. 

There are 300 volunteers. Some have been volunteering for 20 years. It’s not a small commitment, they have to commit to one year – one half shift a week. 

After a two-year lapse, Deming is very happy that there will be a volunteer appreciate celebration this year in person. “Without them, we couldn’t run the center.”

Research and educational programs

“The first step is to try to figure out a solution,” said Deming. “Katie Colegrove and Frances have been doing this for 25 years and are now passing on the torch, and we are picking it up and continuing. Frances was my mentor and now I am a mentor to Master student Sami Shinder.” And no doubt Shinder will mentor another student down the line.

Deming describes a few of their education programs. “For four or five years, we’ve been visiting hospitals and showing kids videos of seal/sea lion releases. The volunteers bring art kits, stuffed animals and socks.”

At PMMC’s Camp Pinniped, which is both online and in person during the summer, kids 8-12 years of age investigate marine science through the world of marine mammals. The online classes make it possible for children throughout the U.S. to participate.

Deming emphasizes the teamwork at PMMC, “We are all in specific roles on the journey. We’re all trying to fix it – from the staff, volunteers, community and undergrads and the people who step in with social media. It’s synergistic. Every person here serves a purpose – with the end goal of protecting the ocean.” 

laguna celebrates on the mend

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On the mend 

“It’s a tough road, and we need an army of people and the community,” Deming said. “With resources, we can identify and expand advocacy by informing the general public what they can do to help change this course. Every person can do something to help, whether it be eliminating or reducing one use plastic bottles and plastic containers, reducing fertilizers, eating less meat, cleaning up the beach or using electric cars. Enough of us need to make a difference in order to find hope. People care and want to do better. You don’t have to be perfect. Don’t let perfectionism get in the way of progress. We live in a capitalistic society where consumer dollars matter. If we make ‘conscious consumer’ decisions and be vocal about the businesses we support who make environmentally responsible decisions, it can help.” 

Deming points out that laws need to be changed, for example when the use of gillnets was banned in coastal California waters in 1994. However, PMMC still intakes seals and sea lions with fishing nets cutting into their necks. “We can’t lobby for specific bills, but we can use science to inform policy, so we speak at scientific conferences.”

Change the course 

There have been times when Deming thought she couldn’t go on with her work.

From 2013-2016 (while she was at the Marine Mammal Center in Sausalito), due to El Niño, there was an unusual mortality event. Warm water changed the Channel Island environment, where the mothers birth their pups, and the fish moved. “We had to euthanize 15 baby seals in one day,” said Deming. The problem was so big. But you have to be tough. If you let it wear you down, then you can’t go on.” Deming is particularly infuriated by those who intentionally harm the animals, shooting or maiming them so they have to be euthanized. 

“We need to carry on the legacy of conservation, figuring ways to join forces instead of resisting, trying to identify issues and prioritize research,” Deming said. “The bigger picture involves scientific information, advocacy and outreach.”

It’s apparent that Deming’s dedication inspires many, but what inspires her?

“I am inspired by the volunteers around me, people who show up and keep going day to day,” she said. And it takes a lot of manpower to rescue a sea lion or seal in the water – five boats and 20-25 people need to be able to mobilize at a moment’s notice.

One would imagine the end goal is releasing the pinnipeds back to the wild, but for Deming, it is bittersweet. “They’re so excited to go back to the ocean, but the dangers are still there, they haven’t changed,” she said.

The ripple effect started by the rescue of one seal in 1971 shows the power of what can be done by making one decision. Hopefully, small environmentally conscious decisions – made one at a time – will have a similar impact and change the course we’re on.

Pacific Marine Mammal Center is located at 20612 Laguna Canyon Road, Laguna Beach. It is open to the public daily from 10 a.m.-4 p.m. and closed on major holidays. For groups of 10 or more, a reservation is required.

For more information about PMMC, go to www.pacificmmc.org.