I have known for a very long time that I wanted my career to involve animals, in particular dogs. It is family lore that my first word was “dog.” In high school, I volunteered at the Philadelphia Zoo and interned at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center, a facility that trains and researches scent detection working dogs. These two early career opportunities gave me experience in a somewhat niche career field and helped me understand that to go further in this field I needed to attend college.
As a senior in high school, when deciding between colleges, I knew I wanted one with few curriculum requirements so I could follow my academic interests. I chose Hamilton College not only for its open curriculum, and excellent faculty but also because it had several animal behavior courses that interested me. While in college, I took advantage of the open curriculum and signed up for every course that captured my interest. While there were not enough animal-related classes to fill my schedule, I found that the faculty were supportive of my interest and allowed me to put an animal-centered spin on assignments for classes not strictly relating to that topic. I remember in my first semester I took a history course “Europe since 1815” in which we were asked to create an annotated bibliography on a topic of our choosing comparing and contrasting differences between WWI and WWII. I chose to research the differences in working animal usage during the two Wars. I had a great few weeks researching military working dogs and B.F. Skinner’s missile guiding pigeons and failed attempts to train sea lions to find naval mines.
In addition to maneuvering non-animal related courses at Hamilton to fit my interests, I also took courses in animal behavior. One of these courses was ecology with Professor Briggs. Professor Briggs encouraged my unique desire to study and work with canines. However, Dr. Briggs also challenged me to expand my research horizons. He asked me to work with him on a population dynamics paper studying Swainson’s Hawks (Buteo swainsoni) as an independent project. From this collaboration I wrote and helped publish Age distribution and longevity in a breeding population of Swainson’s Hawks, Buteo swainsoni. Writing this paper and being published as a primary author has opened many doors for me, and I am so grateful that Professor Briggs and Hamilton gave me this opportunity.
Also, at Hamilton, I created a senior thesis that fit my interests. I wanted to focus on canine behavior, specifically working canine behavior. I had kept in contact with my supervisors at the Working Dog Center in Philadelphia and created a thesis project that benefited me and the Working Dog Center. I worked remotely at Hamilton with behavior data collected at the Working Dog Center. Professor Lehman offered to advise me on this project although this was not his area of expertise, for which I am very grateful. I gained valuable research experience from my thesis that I still apply each day at my job.
During my senior year at Hamilton, like all seniors, in addition to writing my thesis and taking classes, I started looking for career opportunities. I had not ruled out graduate school but wanted to gain career experience before entering a program. I did not know where to start but knew that I wanted to work with dogs, hopefully in an academic way. I worked with the career center, but because my interests were so niche, I was not able to find many contacts there. However, the networking course I took through the career center was useful, and it helped me form contacts in areas I had previously worked in. One contact was the Working Dog Center, where I had interned in high school and where I was getting the data for my thesis. Through my contacts at the Working Dog Center, I learned that the current research assistant was leaving for graduate school in August and that I could interview for the position. I had previously run a summer camp program with the Working Dog Center, Canine Handler Academy, so they already knew of my work ethic and organizational skills. I was lucky enough to interview for the position and even more fortunate to be accepted as the research assistant starting August of 2019.
I continue to work as a research assistant at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center in Philadelphia. In this position, I help manage the odor detection lab, collect data, care for research canines, and write manuscripts. At the moment olfaction research at the Penn Vet Working Dog Center focuses mainly on proof-of-concept studies or studies that show if dogs can or cannot smell certain odors, such as ovarian cancer, chronic wasting disease, and the egg masses of the Spotted Lantern Fly. The goal of our most recent study is to determine if dogs can distinguish the odor of COVID-19 positive patient sweat from COVID-19 negative patient sweat. We are currently collecting more samples to make sure we have a diverse study population, so if you would like to be involved in this project, please check out the Working Dog Center’s website for more information!
I love my job, I get to learn new things every day, work on a fantastic team of collaborators (including dogs), and conduct research that has meaningful implications for the larger community. I am so grateful for the experiences I had at Hamilton which helped prepare me for this career.