As Bellarmine freshman Jace Thomas walked up to the camel, he pulled out his phone to take a selfie. Many of the other students chuckled, but the camel went with it: It started lining itself up, like it was trying to better fit in the frame. It was probably just interested in checking out that sweet camel in the tiny screen, but still—a quick tap, and Jace snapped an incredible pic.
No one else in the zoo would have had this opportunity, since the students were behind a privacy fence in an area otherwise restricted to zoo personnel. This was just another special moment these students experienced in Dr. Joanne Dobbins’ Biology at the Zoo elective.
Bellarmine has offered this course for non-majors since 2012. It includes regular lab times at the zoo, as well as lectures and real-world projects back on campus. Students in the fall 2015 semester have spent the most time at the zoo to date and have had the most interaction with animals, from camels and reptiles to giraffes and apes.
“My goal is to excite students to become the next generation of biological ambassadors for conservation, compassion and sustainability by exposing them to tangible laboratory and field studies using the fabulous resources of Bellarmine and the Louisville Zoo,” Dr. Dobbins said.
Throughout the class, students study nature through each of the different biomes represented at the zoo. During each lab period, assistant curator of conservation education Matthew Lahm and MetaZoo educator Kathleen Johnson give a special lecture on the climate and ecology of a particular ecosystem.
Afterward, the students are treated to a hands-on, behind-the-scenes encounter with one of the animals from that particular ecosystem. The students get to feed and otherwise interact with the animal (including taking a selfie or two) while learning more about how that animal lives and thrives in its natural habitat.
But the adventure does not end when the shuttle takes them back to Bellarmine. On campus, students participate in real-world citizen science labs. One of their projects includes scouring through photos taken by motion-capture trail cameras from Gorongosa National Park in Mozambique, looking for lions and other wildlife to identify and to report to the Gorongosa Lion Project through the Howard Hughes Medical Institute portal. This public project is helping researchers and conservationists document and understand Gorongosa National Park’s recovery, and the effects of recent efforts to restore this war-torn landscape.
The students also study soil samples provided by the Louisville Zoo, looking for disease-fighting viruses known as mycobacteriophages as part of a University of Pittsburgh initiative called the Small Genome Discovery Program. They are seeking viruses that can infect and kill a bacteria related to tuberculosis, with the hope that it could eventually be altered to fight tuberculosis without need for antibiotics. The students have an additional incentive: If they discover a new virus, they get to name it.
Jace didn’t start registering for classes with the goal of hanging out with camels and looking for a potential cure for tuberculosis, though. “I actually fell into the class,” he said, explaining that he took it on a recommendation from his academic advisor, Andrew Schroeder, when other classes started filling up. But he’s not complaining.
“We’re [isolating] bacteriophages in the lab, which is actually a lot of fun. I got to feed a giraffe. I got to take a selfie with a camel. It’s unreal—there are just so many cool parts to the class.”
Walter Parker ’15
Photos by Jessica Ebelhar
Walter Parker is digital communications coordinator in Bellarmine’s Office of Communications & Public Affairs.