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Science & Technology

Zoo Co-op and Internship Bring Drexel at BCC Student Closer to Dream Job

August 27, 2014

Nicole Dykstra with gorilla skull

Nicole Dykstra, with a gorilla skull cast often displayed for guests at the Philadelphia Zoo.

The Co-op program is the centerpiece of the Drexel undergraduate experience, and more than 97 percent of eligible undergraduate students take advantage of it. But Nicole Dykstra, a rising senior in Burlington County College’s Drexel at BCC program, has to be one of a select few who found an internship while working at her part-time co-op to gain more experiences.

As an environmental education and animal behavior intern at the Philadelphia Zoo, Dykstra, a biological sciences major, spent most of her time collecting animal behavior data. This was either for her individual research on the behavior of the zoo’s two Chapman’s zebras, or to aid zookeepers with their projects, which researched subjects ranging from the use of the exercise tower by the goats and sheep to how the big cats use the new exploration trails. But it wasn’t until she gathered with the other human zoo members for a lecture that she got a life-changing opportunity.

“One of the really thoughtful things the zoo staff has done for us was to arrange a number of lectures by zookeepers, curators, the lead veterinarian, the director of conservation and more. It’s so we can learn more about the nuts and bolts of their positions, and also how they ended up in their current positions,” she explained.

Dykstra took one more step toward her dream position working in wildlife conservation when she connected with one lecturer, Virginia Pearson, an esteemed researcher at Fox Chase Cancer Center and an emeritus trustee on the zoo’s Docent Council, which she founded in 1971. During her talk, Pearson discussed elephant endothelialtropic herpesvirus (EEHV), which threatens the sustainability of elephants in captivity and can be fatal for wild Asian elephants, and her field research in Kenya gathering biological samples from wild elephants. Dykstra was fascinated.

“At the end of her presentation, she invited any of us to come visit her at Fox Chase Cancer Center and see her lab work. I don't know whether she really expected any of us to take her up on it, but I approached her after her presentation and asked for her email address,” she said.

After emailing back and forth, Dykstra received a personal tour of Pearson’s lab space the following Monday. After talking about field research, Dykstra’s background as a student, and Pearson’s path to arriving at Fox Chase, Pearson offered her an internship for the rest of the summer, and possibly afterwards indefinitely.

At her internship, Dykstra is primarily helping to organize DNA sequence data collected from the wild elephant populations in Kenya and Botswana, as well as samples from captive elephants in America. Additionally, Pearson is teaching Dykstra invaluable lab skills, like extracting DNA from samples stored in paraffin blocks, feeding and splitting elephant umbilical cells growing on plates, and determining DNA concentration in a sample.

“The internship with Ms. Pearson is very different from the one at the zoo, but that's really perfect for me,” she said.

Another surprise she encountered during her spring/summer co-op was being named one of four co-op students who received a stipend from the Arcadia Foundation and the Steinbright Career Development Center.

“The stipend from the Arcadia Foundation was unexpected! I did not know it existed, so it wasn't something I applied for. It was a pleasant surprise,” she said.

Dykstra’s path to becoming a Philadelphia Zoo co-op has been unusual. Next month, she will celebrate 12 years in the United States Army, having served in the Massachusetts National Guard, on active duty as a mobilized Army Reservist for five years (including a deployment to Baghdad from 2007 to 2008), and now currently as a part-time soldier in the Army Reserve. Her military position was in journalism and public affairs, but she wants to continue working with animals.  

“I'm still at the research phase of that chapter of my life, trying to find a program that will be best for me,” she said.

After graduation, Dykstra plans to attend graduate school for a conservation biology or evolutional biology program.

“Now that I've had this wonderful exposure to wildlife conservation — both at the zoo and with Ms. Pearson — I know this is what I want to do with the rest of my life. It's really allowed me to feel certain in my decision to pursue a career in this field,” she said.