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Researching Pandas on the Other Side of the World

Researching Pandas on the Other Side of the World

By Alli Bates ’16

Otterbein’s Zoo and Conservation Science program provides a wealth of internship opportunities for its students, near and far. This is a story about an internship on the other side of the world.

Otterbein senior Macie Smith and junior Kelly Jackson ventured all the way to China last summer for an internship that gave them the opportunity to be involved with researching panda breeding. While Smith is now looking forward to life after graduation, Jackson is preparing for a second trip to China this summer.

“This internship experience was the first year of a five-year relationship between Otterbein and the Chengdu Research Base of Giant Panda Breeding,” said Smith. “Kelly and I were two of a number of Otterbein students to interview with a panel of Biology and Earth Science Department faculty.”

The internship ran from early June to mid-August of 2015.

Jackson said the first thing she learned was how to distinguish between giant pandas.

“Each one looks so similar at first, but as you continue to watch them, you see more and more differences. I was also able to observe their behavior up close, giving me more knowledge on what certain actions and vocalizations meant.”

One of their duties was to collect red panda feces. They saw how hormonal analysis of fecal matter in the field differed from learning about it in a classroom, and having the hands-on experience was highly beneficial.

They spent most of their time collecting behavioral data for the one-year-old giant panda cubs.

“I learned a lot about the research process and even helped out with other research projects going on around the panda base,” said Smith. “It really sparked my passion for animal behavior research and inspired me to pursue a job with Disney’s Animal Kingdom after graduation.”

She also applied the data she collected in China to her senior research project.

The pair also spent time exploring their temporary home outside the Chengdu Research Base.

“My favorite part about being in China was how many new experiences there were to try. Every night and on weekends, Kelly and I explored the Chengdu area, and whether it was new food, people or places, there was always a new adventure and I absolutely loved that,” said Smith.

“I got to truly immerse myself in a wonderful culture, not only discovering a new way of life, but who I am as a person. If I had to choose one thing though, it would have to be the people,” said Jackson.

“The most challenging part about being in China was the language barrier. Kelly and I tried to take a couple of short lessons from local students but Chinese is incredibly difficult to grasp,” said Smith. “We relied a lot on pictures and gestures so sometimes things didn't work out quite as planned — like when we accidentally ordered an entire plate of mushrooms for dinner — but that was all part of the fun and adventure,” said Smith.

Being at the panda base made Jackson realize how much passion she has towards animals, research, and conservation.

“After college, I hope to further my education by attending graduate school and diving more into understanding the animal world. Thankfully, I have been given the chance to return to panda base again this summer and further my project on the pandas.”

Jackson will continue to observe and collect data on the one-year-old giant panda cubs for her senior research project, and is excited to experience new adventures.

“I am hoping to return to a few of the places Macie and I visited last summer, as well as explore different parts of the country. I cannot wait to go back and re-connect with our friends,” she said.

Smith will graduate on May 3 and already has a job lined up at Disney’s Animal Kingdom in Orlando, FL.

“I am extremely excited to get started there this June. I hope to work there for about a year before I take on graduate school. Much later on down the road, I would love to work in academia so I can continue working on research projects while instilling my passion for wildlife conservation in other students and inspiring them to continue the growth and progress of this field,” said Smith.

Learn more about Otterbein’s Zoo and Conservation Science program.

Read internship stories from Zoo and Conservation Science students at their blog.