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Elephant Research in Africa Gives Biology Student a Career Goal

outdoors photo of ODU biology student Kathryn CoatesKathryn Coates this summer on the ODU campus

When Old Dominion University senior Kathryn Coates says she plans a career in wildlife management in Africa, you can be sure this is not idle talk. She has already started to make her dream job come true.

During the spring semester of 2014, Coates was in Kenya and Tanzania as an ODU Study Abroad student focusing on wildlife management in general and elephants in particular. Her affection for elephants can be traced to a Personal Overseas Development trip she took between high school and college to South Africa.

These trips to prepare her for a profession are testament to her willingness to work hard - like waiting tables six days a week in order to save up money to pay for her experiences - and her growing attachment to conservation and sustainability on planet Earth.

During her senior year at Osbourn High School in Manassas, Va., Coates was studying nursing to become a licensed practical nurse. "During the course, I did not feel very attached to the subject material and started second-guessing what I wanted to do as a profession. I decided to attend Old Dominion University and pursue veterinary school instead."

Prior to high school graduation, she learned of Personal Overseas Development, which offers programs for volunteer work. "I saw that they offered an elephant care and research program in South Africa and decided to apply." She worked in a restaurant to save enough money for a month-long stint with the elephant program.

"The satisfaction I received while spending hours collecting data and caring for the elephants was nothing I had ever experienced before. This opened my eyes to a future in conservation biology," she said.

At ODU, she began her studies in biology, to which she has now added a statistics minor, and quickly decided she had come to the right school.

"Old Dominion stood out to me a lot when I visited. I liked that PETA was down the street, the beach was nearby, and the zoo was available for potential internships. And by the time I completed my first year at Old Dominion, I was very impressed with how great the professors were."

In East Africa from early February to the middle of May of this year, Coates studied wildlife management with 28 other students from universities in the United States. "First we lived in Kenya, where we studied wildlife management, wildlife ecology, environment policy and Swahili and Maasai culture," she said. "Midway through the program, we switched to the Tanzania camp, where we did directed research. I did my research on elephant activity with a focus on social activity and social patterns." The program was offered by an international organization called The School for Field Studies, which gave Coates a scholarship that helped to pay for the semester.

During her stay in Kenya, she said, she was particularly pleased by her interaction with the people. "On top of coursework on African wildlife, we were able to experience the culture of East Africa in our Swahili and culture course, as well as in our environmental policy course. We were able to conduct community transect walks, focus group discussions within the community, and even lived with a Maasai family and evaluate how the women interact with the environment on a day-to-day basis."

She viewed a goat slaughter, and had an interesting observation for one who is a vegetarian. "In East Africa wealth is often measured in livestock, and they treat animals like family. The slaughter of goats is done respectfully, the way it should be done. If I were ever to eat meat again, I'd probably do it in that kind of environment."

Clearly, the highlight of her study abroad semester was the directed research she had the opportunity to conduct in Tanzania. She was assigned to elephant behavior in the Tarangire-Manyara ecosystem and focused on social activity.

"For eight days, I was able to collect data on wild elephants in Lake Manyara National Park, Tarangire National Park, and Manyara Ranch. I collected activity budgets on 144 elephants of different ages and genders. This data allowed me to statistically analyze trends by age and gender. Being able to spend hours watching elephants again connected me to the excitement of the first time I realized what I truly wanted to do with my profession."

After analyzing the data and writing a scientific paper, she presented her findings to local community members, who had the opportunity to ask questions and express how they felt. "Being able to present all of the hard work we put into research was a very rewarding way to end the experience," Coates said.

One general result of the visit has been the strengthening of her grasp of environmental issues and desire to reduce her carbon footprint. "Since I've been back in the United States, I have been making better choices, such as recycling, using less water, turning off lights and unplugging chargers when I am not using them. In the United States it can be hard to connect with the environment, but by seeing pollution and interviewing local farmers dealing with climate change in East Africa, I feel more driven to reduce pressures of pollution."

Coates said she wants to begin graduate studies after she finishes her undergraduate programs at ODU next year, and then she hopes to head back to Africa, or to a similar place that has broad expanses of land that are home to wildlife.

"My dream job would be working with the African Wildlife Foundation doing research. Eventually, I would like to have, or work closely with, a wildlife rehabilitation center in Africa focused on reintroducing animals such as rhinos and elephants into the wild. Once I retire from field work, I would like to settle down in the United States and teach wildlife biology at a university."