Smithsonian-Mason Semester Opens Conservation Field to Undergraduate Students

Posted: December 8, 2008 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

Smithsonian-Mason Semester grads Kristen Culp (far right) and Michelle Waterman (second from right) work in the field with Herlitz Davis, a graduate student at the Smithsonian’s Migratory Bird Center. Leanne Creger, far left, also participated in the semester program.
Photo by Sarah Itoh

By Leah Kerkman Fogarty

Tucked into the rolling landscape near Shenandoah National Park, the 3,200-acre National Zoological Park Conservation and Research Center (CRC) is home to more than endangered animals and the scientists who study them. Last spring, 15 Mason students spent the semester at the CRC as part of the Smithsonian-Mason Semester.

A partnership between the two institutions, the innovative program provides students exposure to some of the most prominent research scientists, educators and conservation practitioners in the country.

For the graduates of the program, which is aimed at upperclass students with at least one introductory science course, being able to learn from the best in the field put them light years ahead of conservation students at other schools.

Kristin Culp, BS Integrative Studies ’08, says, “It was amazing to meet all of the top Smithsonian scientists and learn directly from them the techniques that they’ve developed.”

And many of the program’s graduates are already putting that experience to good use. Here’s how three former Smithsonian-Mason Semester students are faring in the world of conservation work.

Working with Animals

Culp says she chose to attend Mason in part for its connections to the Smithsonian National Zoological Park.

Kristin birdbanding
Kristen Culp tries her hand at bird banding, a practice for tracking birds and their flight and migration habits, while Marc Taylor observes.
Photo by Billy Tidwell

“I want to be an animal keeper, and spending a semester at the CRC seemed like an excellent way of getting my foot in the door,” she says, especially since she didn’t have prior experience working with animals.

During her time at the CRC, Culp cherished the hands-on activities with the animals there. “I loved tackling the white-tailed deer in order to measure its length and weight,” she recalls.

Students also learned how to estimate animal populations and set humane traps for small mammals such as voles and squirrels in order to track them.

“This semester taught me about all of the work that goes on behind the scenes to study and propagate captive animals,” says Culp.

Following her graduation last spring, Culp interned at Fossil Rim Wildlife Center, an open-space conservation park in central Texas. There she worked with black rhinos, which she describes as “kind of like giant puppy dogs.”

She’s currently finishing up another internship in Texas at the International Exotic Animal Sanctuary working with exotic cats and bears. Next up is another turn at Fossil Rim, where she’ll be taking care of Mexican gray wolves, maned wolves, red wolves and coati, known as Mexican raccoon. She hopes to have a full-time permanent position as a zookeeper by the summer.

“If I hadn’t had these connections I made with scientists at the CRC, I don’t think I would’ve been able to break into the zookeeping field,” Culp says. “It’s all about who you know.”

Creating Policy on the Hill

Michelle Waterman, BA Spanish ’08, was heading on a different track when she spotted a flier in the Johnson Center advertising the Smithsonian-Mason Semester. Although her major was in modern languages and didn’t require many science classes, Waterman took an oceanography class and was hooked.

She felt her background in humanities would help her in the conservation field.

Michelle Waterman at Oceana
Michelle Waterman, who studied modern languages at Mason, now has an internship at Oceana combining her love of humanities and conservation.
Photo courtesy of Michelle Waterman

“In conservation science, you’re ultimately dealing with humans,” Waterman explains, pointing out that people make the laws that govern conservation issues. “With the Smithsonian-Mason Semester, I was able to try to join the social aspect with the science.”

Indeed, her time at the CRC cemented her post-graduation plans to continue in the field. She is currently interning at Washington, D.C.-based Oceana, a nonprofit organization dedicated to protecting the world’s oceans.

She’s using both her background in languages and her knowledge of conservation issues in her new position by translating Oceana-produced documents into Spanish. She hopes to soon be writing brochures and helping to redesign the web site for the organization’s sea turtle conservation program.

Waterman would like to eventually work on crafting legislation that will help protect natural resources.

“I think there’s a huge need to combine the science with the policy and be able to translate that into something meaningful legislators can use,” she says.

Since she didn’t have a background in science, the lab work was the most difficult part of the program for her, but now she feels well versed in the science of conservation biology. “The program showed me more of the scientific aspect when we had weeks in the lab,” she says. “If you want to be in policy, it’s good to know the science. That way, you can understand the issues better.”

Conservation Field Work

Even though senior biology major Kristen Thoms is still completing her undergraduate degree at Mason, she knows that conservation is in her long-term career plans.

endcrine lab
During her time at the CRC, Kristen Thoms, center, learned how to extract hormones and analyze them to track pregnancy and stress in animals. Here, she completes some lab work in the endocrinology lab. Another student, Amy O’Donnell, is in foreground.
Photo courtesy of Kristen Thoms

“From the semester, I expected to get a better idea of how I could move forward as an undergraduate into the world of conservation biology,” Thoms says. “But I did not predict the wide variety of subject material we would cover and the new interests that sparked in me when looking at a career in this field.”

Thoms is still figuring out her post-graduation plans, but she’s considering internships in conservation as well as continuing her studies in a conservation graduate program.

But she’s already got some real-world experience under her belt, having spent the summer working on a project tracking the endangered Shenandoah Salamander at the CRC. She is also observing cranes kept at the center, watching them for mating behaviors.

“The semester provided all of the tools and insight to get us started in a career in conservation,” Thoms says.

For more information on the Smithsonian-Mason Semester, visit the web site, Openings are still available for the spring 2009 semester. Contact Anne Marchant, associate director, Mason Center for Conservation Studies, at or e-mail for more information.

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