Fighting Extinction in a Tube

Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, and then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

On February 21st, we met with two Endocrinologists who work at the Institute for Conservation Research: Dr. Chris Tubbs and Ms. Rachel Felton. They are part of the Reproductive Sciences Team, which is one of the three teams of research focusing on reproductive sciences at the Institute for Conservation Research. With Ms. Felton and Dr. Tubbs, we learned all about their job, what it entails, and how to get there.

Endocrinologists play a vital role in the fight for conservation. Their job is to study a female’s reproductive cycle in order to calculate if she is able to reproduce, and to pinpoint when she is ovulating for fertilization purposes. Scientists are able to figure these things out by searching for specific hormones in either feces, urine, or blood. Ms. Felton informed us of the most common place they look for hormones, and to our surprise it is actually in their feces! More specifically, progesterone is a hormone that rises and falls with a female’s cycle. It is a chemical signal that tells the body to do certain things in regards to ovulation and pregnancy. When it is low, there is not much occurring in the female’s reproductive organs. When it starts to increase, ovulation is occurring, and if it drops again, it tells the scientists that the animal is not pregnant but is still cycling. However, if the progesterone levels don’t come down, but continue to remain high and steady, it signals to the scientists that the animal is pregnant. Here at the Beckman Center, Ms. Felton and Dr. Tubbs focus mainly on rhinos and California condors; both condors and rhinos are critically endangered and garner a lot of support from donors.

Throughout our time with Ms. Felton and Dr. Tubbs, we were able to ask many questions about their degrees and career path. Ms. Felton told us that she loves this job so much because she feels like she is answering a question: “Is this animal pregnant or able to become pregnant?” She also informed us that she always wanted to work with animals, and here, she feels like she is making a huge difference in helping endangered species. Ms. Felton did not always start out as an endocrinologist, however. Upon entering grad school, Ms. Felton attended the University of Missouri with a degree in biology. In Missouri, she became a keeper at a local zoo. Eventually, she graduated and started her masters at the same school yet finished her project at the Zoo. Now, she is on her sixth year working here and continues to love it.

Dr. Tubbs is a Senior Scientist at the Institute for Conservation Research, and oversees a lot of the work done in the Reproductive Sciences Lab. He started his career path believing he was going to become a vet at the University of Florida with a bachelor in science. This plan later changed and he eventually earned a PHD in Marine Science from the University of Texas. Upon contacting the Zoo’s Frozen Zoo to see if a certain trout species could be stored there, he was offered a job. He took it and fell in love with the job. He then later told us that his most favorite project at the Zoo involved researching the correlation between rhino reproductive healthy and diet. After years of research, Dr. Tubbs and his team discovered that there was a negative correlation between rhino reproduction and phytoestrogens. Once the phytoestrogens was removed from the rhino’s diet, the Zoo has seen two successful rhino pregnancies. This finding has spread to many zoos across the country, and many facilities are changing their rhino diets..    

Towards the end of our time with Dr. Tubbs and Ms. Felton, I had fallen deeply in love with this job. I asked what I, and many others, could do to eventually end up with this kind of job. Dr. Tubbs informed us that the most important thing we can do to get this type of job is to get as much lab experience as early as possible. This type of experience and work would be very beneficial for this job. Not only getting into labs, but finding internships or fellowships are very important. He also encouraged that we build many relationships and network with people already in the field, including professors, so finding a job and working with coworkers could be easier.

The purpose of the Zoo Internquest is to introduce us to many animal related careers we would have previously known about, and endocrinology by far, should become a more well known profession. Its impact and exciting work plays an important role in the fight to end extinction. Personally, after meeting Ms. Felton and Dr. Tubbs, I have new aspirations to work as a conservation endocrinologist! I had no idea this was something I could do, now its all I want to do!

Lauren, Career Team
Week Four, Winter Session 2018

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