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Alumni Spotlight: Sarah Balik ‘15, DVM ‘19, National Aquarium

Sarah Balik examines a sea turtle.

While she’s now nearing the completion of a two-year Veterinary Fellowship at the National Aquarium, Sarah Balik ‘15, DVM ‘19, clearly recalls experiences she had as a Cornell veterinary student that set her on her current path. As a student, Dr. Balik took on a plethora of veterinary experiences to help her explore her passion for working with wildlife.

She recalls spending hours volunteering at the Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital, interning at the Jane Goodall Institute in Uganda through the Engaged Cornell program, and traveling to the Belize Zoo with Cornell’s veterinary team. “I always knew that I wanted to work with wildlife, but my passion for this work was solidified during this time,” says Balik.

Her particular interest in working with aquatic animals, she says, blossomed during her clinical year, when she pursued several externships. “I feel fortunate that Cornell supported me so I could take advantage of all of the opportunities I was interested in but that could not be pursued at the school itself, including working at rehabilitation centers for sea turtles in Florida and marine mammals in California,” she says.

Sarah Balik examines a sea turtle.

Dr. Balik ultimately graduated in 2019 with both her DVM and MPH, which she obtained through Cornell’s dual degree program with the University of Minnesota. “I pursued the dual degree program because I wanted to gain a broader perspective in population medicine than what is offered in the typical vet school curriculum. I knew that I wanted my work as a vet to impact broader conservation of populations of animals, and in order to do that I needed the type of coursework that comes with an MPH. My master’s project revolved around work I did through the Engaged Cornell program about respiratory disease transmission between endangered chimp populations and neighboring forest-adjacent people in Uganda. I hope to use the knowledge I gained from my DVM and MPH to benefit individual patients as well as the conservation of endangered species (especially aquatic wildlife) in the long term.”

After her graduation, Dr. Balik completed a small animal rotating internship at Angell Animal Medical Center and then a specialty internship in aquatic animal medicine at the University of Florida. In her current role at the National Aquarium, Dr. Balik’s primary responsibilities include providing medical care to rescued marine animals undergoing rehabilitation at the aquarium and to the animals in the aquarium’s collection.

As part of her position, she also gets to pursue research goals. She is currently focused on a project examining normal ophthalmic exam parameters in smooth-sided toads. When her fellowship is completed, Dr. Balik hopes to continue working to increase our understanding of aquatic species and improve their health. “I envision myself working for an aquarium with a strong conservation mission where I could continue to do marine wildlife rehabilitation work, or at a primary rehabilitation facility,” she shares.

Sarah Balik examines a sea turtle.

Dr. Balik doesn’t shy away from acknowledging the competitive nature of the field. Despite this, “I would encourage current or prospective students to keep a positive attitude and not to give up on their passions. Another tip is to be open-minded,” Dr. Balik says. “Try every experience possible in veterinary school. Cornell has many diverse opportunities to take advantage of, and each one can offer you valuable skills and experience to use in the future. You never know–you may fall in love with one specialty or aspect of veterinary medicine you were not expecting!”

Update: At the time of publication, Dr. Balik has since completed her two-year Veterinary Fellowship with the National Aquarium and is now an associate veterinarian at the New England Aquarium.

Written by Colleen Sorge ’20, DVM ’24

All photos by the National Aquarium.