It All Started with 'Herping' for this Undergraduate Researcher
When Kelly Wilson chose to attend the University of Findlay for animal science/pre-veterinary medicine and biology she knew she would get plenty of hands-on experiences out at the Dr. C. Richard Beckett Animal Science Building starting in her first year in the program. However, she soon discovered that her hands-on experiences with animals wouldn’t be limited to just mammals.
Though she started out at the barn with other freshmen drawing blood, docking tails, dehorning and performing castrations on traditional farm animals, her sophomore year began her scientific journey with frogs, salamanders, lizards and alligators. “Many times I have found myself jumping rocks in Caesar’s Creek in Cincinnati, Ohio doing what herpetologists call ‘herping’,” said Wilson. She and her classmates have joined Justin Rheubert, instructor of biology at the University, on several “herping” trips to bring specimens back to campus for research. Their research includes studying the anatomy of the reproductive system, behavior analyses, and morphological studies to assess relationships among the organisms. “These experiences were not only exciting, but also confirmed my desire to pursue a hands-on career in the scientific field,” she said.
Wilson’s continued interest in researching salamanders, lizards and alligators led her to one of her most recent research projects involving the American alligator and a huge step in her academic career – her first published paper. The study focused on the effects of environmental toxins on gender determination in crocodilians. “Alligators and crocodiles exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination, which means that the gender of an individual is determined by the temperature at which the egg is incubated,” said Wilson.
Previous work by Chris Murray, Ph.D., professor of biology at Tennessee Tech University and biologist consultant for Animal Planet’s “Gator Boys” and “Monster Croc Invasion”, found that nest temperatures did not accurately predict the sex ratio of American crocodiles in Costa Rica. Wilson’s research was also led by Dr. Murray with additional help from Rheubert. Wilson’s role was to prepare the tissue samples for histological analysis and analyze the slides of the various treatments to determine if any deviations from the control group existed. Although their results indicated that the environmental toxin, methyltestosterone, can have masculinizing effects on American alligators, a lot of future work is needed to determine if that toxin is the ultimate cause of altering the sex ratio of the crocodile population in Costa Rica.
Wilson’s portion of the project was primarily led by Rheubert. “Professor Rheubert has been by my side demonstrating techniques, explaining concepts, and supporting my growth in the scientific method for the past two and a half years. He even dedicated time outside classes to come into the lab and help me with my research,” said Wilson. Not only does she feel Rheubert is a vital component of her academic achievements at Findlay, she also compliments his encouragement as an advisor. “He has gone above and beyond the expected measures of a professor by making special appointments for me and other students to assure that our schedules are correct, we are succeeding, and that we are all well-prepared for graduate school or potential careers,” she said.
In fact, dedicated faculty, like Rheubert, and Wilson’s hard work and determination have recently led to her first publication. Her collaborative research on the environmental toxins on gender determination in alligators and crocodiles was published in General and Comparative Endocrinology, which is a peer-reviewed journal. Peer reviewed articles are sent out to experts in the field who check the work for flaws in the experimental design and conclusions drawn from the data. The article was first published online in early July. “Publishing is one of the most important aspects of scientific research, as it allows the data that you have collected concerning hypotheses to be viewed by others so they may use your data and conclusions to develop new hypotheses in order to advance science,” Wilson said.
Wilson’s goal is to be accepted into a graduate veterinary program to earn a doctor of veterinary medicine. At this point she’s still trying to decide whether she’d like to focus on emergency medicine or specialize in surgery. “No matter which avenue I choose I feel UF has prepared me for success. The coursework alone is representative of what a career in veterinary medicine entails: long hours, a lot of details, and the will to succeed. Furthermore, the expectations UF sets to become a well-rounded individual rooted in faith has motivated my passion to aid in the health and well-being of animals, but to also lead a meaningful life serving other people,” said Wilson.
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