Growing up in the Detroit area, Leever knew from a young age what career path she wanted to pursue.
“For as long as I can remember, I’ve been obsessed with our oceans and their aquatic life. I spent almost all of my time watching Animal Planet and re-watching my Blue Planet: Seas of Life VHS tapes. That was when I wasn’t roaming around an actual aquarium in love with every single creature I saw. From day one I knew this was the field I wanted to work in and I’ve worked hard to make sure I can spend my life doing the work I’m passionate about.” said Leever.
Leever received her bachelor’s degree in Alabama with a major in biology and an evolution major, but then returned to Michigan for graduate school.
“My student fantasy was to go to a school in a beautiful and remote area of the state with a program and community I could fall in love with, and that’s where NMU came in. After visiting the beautiful lakeside campus and meeting all the wonderful people in the biology department, I knew NMU was the right place for me,” said Leever.
Leever graduated from NMU with a Masters of Science in the summer of 2021 and is now living her childhood dream as a biologist at the Golden Nugget Casino and Hotel in Las Vegas, Nevada.
“I started this job just two weeks after officially graduating from NMU after searching online for jobs in the marine aquarium industry. I discovered that several Vegas hotels housed large aquariums and was blown away by the Golden Nugget’s facilities. Especially after seeing videos of people going down the water slide that goes through the inside of their shark tank, which you can wade straight into their pool to.” said Leever.
Not too many jobs require you to swim among sharks on a daily basis. Leever does.
“We start our work routine early in the morning by checking all of our aquatic life to make sure everyone is happy and healthy as usual. After that, staff divide and conquer to perform extensive water testing in each tank, prepare delicious meals for the animals, and maintain all of our life support systems.” Leever explained. “We spend most of our day in the water cleaning the pens, maintaining the pens, feeding and observing the animals, and conducting behavioral training exercises with certain animals. While some tasks are daily tasks, we must be prepared for constant and unexpected changes.”
Leever works with over 90 species represented in his Shark Tank and Tropical Reef Tank, totaling over 600 individual animals
“Shark species include sand tiger sharks, blacktip reef sharks, a zebra shark, a nurse shark and three southern rays (cousins of sharks). These species co-exist in the larger tank with several species of large fish such as the giant mackerel and crevalle jack, both of which are best known as big game sport fish. The only exception is Jett, one of our rays. It lives in the tropical reef tank with hundreds of smaller tropical fish and our green moray eel. Jett spends most of her time being her crazy energetic self and actively swimming around the aquarium as if she were one of the fish. She can be quite cheeky at meals; Sometimes when we give her something she doesn’t like, she swims right over us and spits her food back into our laps! Much like with pets, getting to know our animals’ personalities and food preferences is part of building a relationship with them and maintaining proper care.”
For safety reasons, Leever wears chainmail sleeves over her wetsuit along with typical scuba gear to go in the water with the sharks.
“Nobody’s ever been bitten, and nobody worries about it, but it’s always best to be safe! Sand tiger sharks’ teeth are partially outside their mouths. So with us working in such close proximity it is important to ensure you are protected in the event you are accidentally hit. said Leever.
Leever said the most rewarding part of her job is definitely seeing the fruits of her research and labor reflected in the animals’ healthy and enriched lives.
“I have come to learn about all the different personalities of our sharks, rays and fish alike and it is always exciting to see how they interact with their aquarium mates and staff. Another incredibly rewarding aspect of this job is seeing the amazement and excitement of our guests as they observe our animals, gaining new perspectives and appreciation for creatures that they might otherwise never be able to experience up close. I keep hearing from guests and staff in other departments how shocked they are when they see us diving into the tank and spending time between these species. It’s worth hearing how it makes them question what they thought about shark behavior, as we all know sharks have gotten unfairly bad PR over the years.”
Leever explained that most people don’t understand how the aquarium is involved in conservation.
“Golden Nugget Las Vegas, in particular, participates in research into species survival plans. For example, our female zebra shark is part of an ongoing effort to restore wild populations that are at vulnerable levels in their natural range. All the valuable information that can be recorded when you have animals in excellent human care can contribute to scientific breakthroughs that would otherwise be stymied by the difficulty of gathering such specific data in vast oceans. Aquariums are not only an important educational asset for the public, but also an educational asset for scientific research, conservation and beyond.” explained Leever.
As a woman in a STEM career, Leever is a big cheerleader for more girls to follow in her footsteps.
“The number of young women entering the STEM field is increasing every year, which I am very happy to see. My best advice to kids trying to find their place in the competitive world of science is to seek experience wherever you can find it. Having a great education is very important in STEM, but experience can be just as important and potentially set you apart from the crowd. I recommend participating in any research opportunity you come across and finding organizations or events that you can volunteer with. The combination of my education in the natural sciences and my experience gained through volunteering in research and aquarium education has allowed me to land a job here at the Golden Nugget that I had dreamed of for decades.”