Mason Students Present Research at the National Zoo’s Conservation and Research Center

Posted: September 1, 2004 at 1:00 am, Last Updated: November 30, -0001 at 12:00 am

By Jennifer Mitchell

Zoologists aren’t sure why more than half of the female animals at the National Zoo don’t go through normal reproductive cycles, but with the help of George Mason’s Environmental Science and Policy (ESP) students, they may find out. This problem is one of many being studied by students at the zoo’s Conservation and Research Center (CRC) in Front Royal, Va.

In July, the zoo’s Department of Reproductive Sciences held a Science Day, during which CRC students and scientists gathered to present their recent research. Of the 25 presenters, 7 were Mason students, 3 of whom were also session moderators. “This event makes it clear that the George Mason-CRC collaboration is working,” says Chris Jones, ESP chair. Steve Monfort, senior scientist and Mason alumnus, also presented research during the event, and Larry Rockwood, associate professor, represented ESP.

ESP students presented research on reproductive acyclicity in African elephants, endocrinology and ovulation induction of the beluga whale, and sperm cryopreservation of the endangered black-footed ferret. Mason graduate student Dave Kersey, a giant panda endocrine technician at the CRC, presented his master’s thesis on giant panda reproduction.

“Surprisingly, little research has been done on giant panda reproduction, largely in part because of the lack of a technique that allows data to be collected easily,” says Kersey, who is working on a new method of collecting the urine of the giant pandas housed at the zoo. The method is less invasive than repeated blood draws, and data can be recorded much sooner than data gathered from studying feces. Kersey says rapid analysis is extremely useful in monitoring the pandas’ reproductive cycles. Because giant pandas experience only one estrus a year, which lasts for just a few days in winter or spring, “it is crucial to have hormone data readily available to pinpoint when the female is most fertile so that she can be paired with the male or artificially inseminated,” says Kersey.

ESP, in collaboration with the National Zoo and the CRC, recently signed a formal memorandum of understanding with the Smithsonian Institution that guarantees fellowships at the CRC for at least 8 new doctoral students at Mason. The fellowships will give the students an opportunity to live at the CRC and work at Mason as teaching assistants.

Another reflection of the close relationship of Mason and the CRC is the development of a Master of Arts in Interdisciplinary Studies Program in Zoo and Aquarium Leadership at Mason. New Century College associate professor Tom Wood, who works closely with students at the CRC and even worked there himself as a graduate student, was instrumental in founding the program. Designed for students and those already working within an accredited zoo or aquarium, the program offers specializations in collections management, administration, and conservation education. “This program has proved very successful in its first year,” says Wood. For more information on the master’s program, visit the web site.

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