Posts Tagged ‘Zoology’

Join us as we talk to Nicole about her life as a post graduate student and her love of Zoology!

1. How did you become interested in Science?

I was interested in science from the time I bought my very first guinea pigs and they had 3 little babies. The mum was a scruffy guinea pig, dad was smooth haired, yet all the children were scruffy like mum: I remember I found that so fascinating that they inherited their scruffiness from their mum. Over the years I had a zillion pets and baby animals, and learnt I could mix breeds of guinea pigs I liked together to get the traits I wanted in their kids. It was my first taste of what zoology and genetics would be like.

2. What are you currently studying?

I first did my Bachelor of Science degree at the University of Melbourne, majoring in Genetics and Zoology. Then, I decided to do a postgraduate degree and enrolled in the Masters of Science research course, majoring in Zoology.

3. Why did you choose a Zoology degree?

I have loved animals for as long as I remember. I had as many pets as I could growing up, and loved playing with all my friend’s pets and finding out interesting facts about animal behaviour. What I also love about Zoology is the field work component, as you really get to hands on with nature and animals, all in the name of science!

4. What was the hardest part about jumping from VCE to Uni?

The hardest thing about the switch to uni from school was probably the cultural aspect of it. You’re in a small, tight-knit community at school, and your friends are with you every step of the way. At uni, there are different people in each of your subjects, and your forced to make new friends in each one, which can be quite challenging if you’re shy and nervous. But once you make the effort to get to know a range of people, from your subjects, clubs and societies, uni life is great fun and you’ll treasure the friends you make here for the rest of your life.

5. What has been the highlight of your tertiary studies so far?

My Masters research project has definitely been the most challenging aspect of my degree, but also the most rewarding. It’s so fulfilling to develop a whole project from an idea, design experiments to test a theory, and potentially answer biological questions nobody has ever been able to answer before. I’ve learnt so many skills from it as well such as how to manage my time effectively, communicate with different audiences, and how to work proactively and independently.

6. Throughout your course has there been anyone who has inspired you?

I’m most inspired by my peers every day! The most comforting part of a Zoology Masters is that there are 20 other students going through exactly what you are going through. Whether if your research methods are not working as planned, you have no significant results, or you have so much work that you’re scared you won’t meet a deadline, you can be guaranteed someone else has gone through it before and can offer some words of comfort and encourage you to persevere!

7. What place around Uni is your second home?

The Zoology department is most definitely my second home now. As a postgraduate, we’re privileged enough to get our own desk spaces, as well as access to a computer room and printing privileges. The tea room is a great place to meet up with fellow students and catch up, and friday drinks are a tradition. What else could you want as a postgraduate?

8. Where do you plan your course will take you?

There are a few careers I have in mind. One would be a research career, starting with a PhD degree. I’m also looking at entering government where I can work on state or national policy regarding wildlife and biodiversity. Another avenue I may take is in Environment Impact Assessment, where I’d survey land for any wildlife present before construction companies decide to build there.

9. What does an average day at Uni consist of for you?

During semesters, I do my subjects, which are run by the zoology department and business departments. As I’m allowed to take electives in my Masters course, it’s been great to try some business subjects to see if I like the idea of entering the business world sometime in my career. Between semesters is where I undertake my research, and my study site is in rural Victoria, out near Geelong. I have a bird banding license, and I catch superb blue fairy-wrens for my project where I am looking at female mate choice.

10. If you could give one piece of advice to a budding Science student, what would it be?

The Bachelor of Science is a great degree to see what you really enjoy and find out what you’d like to do afterwards. You get to take such a variety of subjects, that it really gives you a chance to experience subjects you’d never thought to take before. I thought I would follow a career in genetics when I first started science, but then found I loved zoology much more, and changed my career path entirely. Broad degrees are the best to take if you’re still a little unsure and want to dabble around. Also, science kids are the best friends you’ll ever make. So get excited, and study science at the University of Melbourne!

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If you we’re anything like me, you know what you want to do, you know what undergraduate course you need to take… but what next?

Every course has a variety of post-graduate options to undertake. For fields like Zoology, this is an almost mandatory step. It can be really really difficult to get a job straight out of a Bachelor degree. You lack one very important thing: experience.

You’ve learnt the theory, you’ve done some field work, but you’ve never run your own research project.

A post-graduate degree is a great way to get some hands on experience in your chosen field. You can of course choose a coursework post-graduate degree to further your expertise in your field. Or you can follow the research path and undertake a project researching something no one has ever looked at before. This can prepare you for doing your PhD, or it can give you the skills you require to enter your chosen field.

In the same way your undergraduate course (and indeed the 13 years of education prior to this) teach you not just the content, but how to learn – a post-graduate degree teaches you not only how to conduct a single research project, but will give you skills you will use for the rest of your life.

What does it involve?

Some science streams differ slightly, so I will talk predominantly of my experiences in Zoology.

If you go for the research stream, you will work with a supervisor (usually a lecturer from your department) on a research project. This can be both lab or field based (or both!).

Some science streams still offer Honours, which is a one year research project. But many are moving towards Masters instead: Zoology being one of them. I was originally a Masters skeptic, but I am now the converted!

Masters involves me doing a research project over two years alongside 125 points of coursework (subjects are usually worth 12.5 points – so this means 6 subjects) . This allows me to study relevant subjects to my fieldwork, as well as the opportunity to extend my knowledge into areas I haven’t been able to in my Zoology degree. In addition, you can utilise the connections the University has with other institutions in that field in a way you would be unable to independently. In my case, these are institutions like Museum Victoria, Zoos Victoria, Department of Sustainability and Environment and the Commonwealth Scientific Research Organisation, amongst others.

The greatest advantage I’ve found is that, by extending the research project over two years, you get so much more time to think about your project, rather than rushing headlong into it. This translates to a stronger experimental design, as well as a greater shot at a publication (yes, your research will in all likelihood be published in a scientific journal!). As well as that, you can also make time to work a day job during Masters unlike Honours – which for myself was what made the decision for me.

My Masters Experience

I am doing a Master of Science, Zoology stream. I am 3 months into my Masters degree, and I love it. It is extremely full on and requires a lot of dedication and careful time management – something your undergraduate degree will give you plenty of. The coursework is amazing: in one subject I spent every second Tuesday on a field trip to everywhere from Serendip Wildlife Sanctuary to Phillip Island Nature Park, going behind the scenes and hearing from the professional scientists and wildlife managers employed there all about what goes on there and the broader implications for managing wildlife. In another, we’re learning how to effectively communicate science to our colleagues and to members of the public alike. Later in the year I will get to refine my skills in statistics and learn animal ethics in more depth.

My research project involves understanding the ways in which brushtail possums use nest boxes. We don’t really know if animals use nest boxes out of desperation, or if they are actually suitable homes for wildlife. In some cases, they may be doing more damage than good! I will be using a combination of captive trials, field work and computer modelling to look at the ways temperature and the risk of predation influence a possum’s choice of nest box. If all goes well, the results will increase our understanding of brushtails’ biology, as well us helping us to understand what influences nest box choice across a variety of different animals. It will help us understand how brushtails may respond to climate change, as well as to deter possums from nesting in people’s rooftops. It’s all very exciting!

But the real goldmine lies in the fact that, after my Masters degree, I will be equipped with a whole new set of skills that I will be able to carry not only into my PhD, but into the rest of my professional life. I will make a network connections with academics and fellow students alike, many of whom will be my colleagues in future. I think that’s an endpoint worth striving for!

If you’re interested in finding out more about graduate opportunities, the entry requirements, and what is available in your favourite stream: check out the Melbourne Graduate School of Science page.

What is Zoology?

Posted: May 2, 2011 in Zoology
Tags: ,

If I had a dollar for every time someone, upon asking me about my chosen field, replied with, “Oh, so you want to work in a Zoo then?” I’d… well, I’d probably be able to shout you a trip to the zoo.

Golden Snub-nosed Monkey :: photo by suneko on Flickr

And as ridiculous a question as it seems to me now, I remember a time when it was not so clear. When I had all the passion for conservation and none of the information on how to pursue that. When someone once told me I should do Ecology, and I had no idea what that meant. Indeed, to my co-workers at my day job, Ecology is a Manchester brand and little else.

“Zoo-” is a Greek root meaning “animal” or “life”. Any word you see beginning with “zoo” will pertain to something involving animals – not necessarily a Zoo. The suffix -logy comes from the Greek word “logos”, meaning the science or study of.

In fact, if you’re going to take up a life sciences degree in any shape or form, you might want to learn the Greek and Latin roots of the terms you learn in class. Understanding the meaning of prefixes and suffixes will help you out enormously in understanding all those crazy long words that will creep up on you as you go along. It might also save you in an exam one day! (And by ‘might’ I mean “definitely will frequently” – I can attest to that!)

Back on topic, Zoology is thus a study of life and animals. This encompasses everything we see in nature. Every time you watch a documentary on animals, you are hearing facts that were discovered by Zoologists! It is a complex field, with no easy answers to research questions. A lecturer once joked to the class the he had abandoned his former field of science because it was too easy – he wanted to study something without an easy answer. While it was a jovial remark, it reflected a deeper truth: in Zoology there isn’t ever one single answer. There is no a = b. It is a profoundly complex web of intermingled relationships that influence one another on a variety of levels. It’s a deep, intellectual challenge – and that’s just half the fun of it!

Whatever you interests in animals, a Zoology degree is a great way to start. Even if you miss the marks to get into Vet Science, Zoology can act as a pathway there. There are a multitude of disciplines, sub-disciplines and pathways available here, so I’m going to talk about a few of the different disciplines I dabbled in in my undergraduate degree.

Ecology: What once was a foreign concept to me quickly became central to everything I did. Ecology is simply the study of living organisms and their surroundings. It stems from the idea that nothing can be viewed alone: life is interconnected and to understand an organism we need to understand those connections. You will learn how to decipher these relationships and how to understand the ways they impact one another.

Conservation and Australian Wildlife: If conservation is what takes your interest, you’re in the right place. As a high school student, I knew I wanted to work in conservation but had no idea how to get there. Did I just have to volunteer for an NGO, or could I do it academically? It took me some time to realise that I could do it through a Zoology degree. Most everything you learn is underpinned by Ecology. We learnt conservation with a focus on Australian wildlife, but the implications are global. We learnt everything from how to recognise the ways in which change may impact a community, to the legal processes behind conservation at both a State and Federal level.

Animal Behaviour: This one is of particular interest to me, especially now as my Masters project dabbles in this a lot. This is where you find out how to understand why animals act the way they do. Why do some animals live alone whilst others stay in groups? Why do some spiders ‘decorate’ their webs? How does a possum choose where to sleep during the day? It is commonly mistaken for being an easy science – until you try it! Animals will not talk to you, wildlife will not cooperate: it all rests on experimental design. You have to be able to design an experiment that takes into account everything that can influence the animal so you can manipulate just one of these things and discover how the animals reacts. You will not only learn now to do this, but you will get to do this in practise! You will design real-life experiments in an attempt to find out something that hasn’t been tried before, or to test the validity of something that has. This is useful for conservation purposes, but many study animal behaviour just because they find it interesting!

Reproduction and Development: It isn’t all field work, so if a laboratory is what takes your fancy then there’s room for that, too. The subjects cover everything, from all the hormonal processes in the body that lead the the production of reproductive cells, to the process of fertilisation itself. You will soon understand every cell division of the egg, and what part of the body is formed during which process of development. You will then learn how this whole process can be manipulated for a variety of reasons: to increase yield in a dairy farm, or to control an over-populated species, or even to captive breed an endangered species.

Physiology: Again, if you prefer the clinical stuff, physiology is something you may be interested in. It looks at the system of a living organism. Understanding on a cellular level the way the body works is important in understanding more about the animal itself. This can also have important implications for management of a species.

Genetics: While not strictly being a Zoology topic, it is central to a lot of what we do. After all, if it wasn’t for genetics, we wouldn’t actually know that birds aren’t truly monogamous! While they appear to pair for life, they will sneak other matings behind their partners’ back. Without paternity tests, we would still believe that they were completely faithful. Genetics is useful for being able to indentify animals, as well as being able to understand the level of diversity in a population. The tools it offers us seem to increase by the day, as do the ways to utilise them.

These are just a very brief few. If you want to know more about studying Zoology, you can ask us in the comment section or email us any time. Many Universities that offer a Zoology degree will have a lot of information on their websites, so there’s another good place to start!

It is rather impossible for me to describe to you what an average week is like for a Zoology student. This is particularly so at the Masters level, where there is very little structure. But before I talk to you about my postgraduate life, let’s talk about life before I had a shiny Bachelor degree plaque on my wall (or truthfully, hidden away in the cupboard out of embarrassment).

A mother Eastern grey kangaroo and her joey - Strathbogie Ranges, Victoria

Like most other university students, you attend formal classes: your year level determines the frequency of these. Most subjects have a lecture, practical and tutorial component. The lecture gives you the background theory, the tutorial gives you the chance to test your knowledge with questions and flesh out any ideas you’ve got locked away in your mind, and then the prac lets you get hands on. But it’s not all sitting behind a microscope in your lab coat looking at cells all day. Zoology pracs are much more fun than that!

Straight up: if you can’t handle dissection, then Zoology is not for you. But you will surprise yourself at how into it you will become: the insight you will get into the workings of the body will be invaluable. We even isolated a cane toad heart in an organ bath, and kept it alive and beating while we treated it with different hormones to see the effect on the heart rate – you have not lived until you’ve experienced a heart beating in isolation from the body!

Then there’s the live pracs. You’ll start out with the basics: rats and cane toads. If that sounds yucky to you, wait until you work up and close with these live creatures. They are endearing and even cute (trust me, even a cane toad can be cute!). I’ve had a gorgeous, cuddly white rat who we named Kayla snuggle into my arm and sleep whilst I drew the cell diagrams from the swabs we’d taken from her. Another time we got to watch the effect of oxytocin (a hormone) on the rate milk ejection from a female rat: seeing the tiny baby rats wag their tails in excitement at the sudden flow of milk was an awesome way to spend an afternoon.

Your degree will be full of field excursions, so embrace what is a wonderful opportunity to get out there in the real world doing real experiments. One week you’ll be at Phillip Island, the next in the Strathbogie Ranges. In second year, my every Tuesday and Thursday afternoon was spent sitting at Albert Park lake studying the behaviour of black swans in an experiment on mate guarding. We studied magpie larks and brushtail possums. We went spotlighting for sugar gliders and were lucky enough to see a greater glider glide from one tree to the next.We caught all manner of animals and were taught how to appropriately treat and handle a wild animal. We learnt how to trap, track and trace the movements of animals. We learnt how to design experiments, a skill I now definitely do not take for granted. Above all, we learnt the hard way to respect that wild animals will not cooperate just because you have a deadline and an experimental question that needs answering.

There are endless opportunities to volunteer (with food and accommodation paid for) on a variety of postgrad and staff projects that will not only give you skills you won’t get in class and expand your knowledge, but will allow you to see places of the country you otherwise would never get access to. If you’re interested in pursuing a career in Zoology, volunteering will also aid you in securing a postgraduate project for yourself, as being proactive and passionate is the best way to make an impression.

While it can be easy to get bogged down by assignments and the thought of another 8am class, my Zoology degree reminded me at every turn how lucky I am to be doing what I am doing. In high school, a class in which I could sit and listen to lecturers talk about animals, a class where my task was to learn that which I was already passionate enough about to pursue in my spare time, was a dream come true.

Allow me now to share with you a few of my favourite happy snaps I took on just one of my field trips to the Strathbogie Ranges.

An old male koala we quite easily caught and monitored.

An antechinus: easily mistaken for a mouse, this girl is actually a little known native marsupial.

A microbat mid-way through eating a moth we were feeding to it prior to release.

One very full pouch!

A bobuck, or mountain brushtail possum. She was very sleepy.

A little black snake we caught, dusted with UV powder, released and tracked back to its hidey-hole at night time.

An echidna we happened upon. This guy was unfamiliar with humans and so was quite happy to walk right up to us when we sat very still.

– Rhiannon