Fall 2019 / Features

Hands-On Conservation

Students Research Mexican Wildlife

by Cathy Mentzer

Wilson’s Jocelyn Struble ’20 and the other young women sleeping in her tent in the Mexican jungle were jolted awake at 4:30 a.m. by hair-raising, guttural whooping. A group of howler monkeys was waking up right above their tent, making the ominous, low-pitched vocalizations for which the species is known—their calls are among the loudest of any animal and can be heard miles away. This was Struble’s first morning in Calakmul, Mexico, as part of the “Experiential Tropical Ecology” summer course.

It was just the first of what Struble and some of the other five Wilson students who took the course describe as life-altering experiences during the June 24 to July 7 course led by Assistant Professor of Biology Abby Maley and Fulton Center for Sustainability Studies Director Chris Mayer. The trip was sponsored by Operation Wallacea, also known as Opwall, an organization that runs environmental research and conservation expeditions in remote locations around the world.

“It was an amazing experience,” said Jacob Slifka, an Adult Degree Program student from St. Thomas, Pa., who is pursuing a biology degree with the hope of becoming certified to teach. The trip solidified Slifka’s interest not only in teaching, but also in making scientific research part of his vocation. “It was awesome. I want to do it again.”

For the first half of the course, the Wilson students worked alongside researchers and scientists monitoring the impact of climate change on animal life in the Calakmul Biosphere Reserve in the tropical Mayan forest. During the second half of the trip, the students worked with researchers studying the success and limitations of the Akumal Fish and Sea Turtle Refuge, a protected area for marine life created in 2017.

“The course, overall, is exactly what I wanted to explore,” said Alyssa Fell ’20, an animal studies major from New Jersey who plans to attend graduate school to study wildlife conservation and ecology. “What I’m interested in is how climate change is affecting the migration of species in different locations. [The course] was the perfect opportunity to dabble in everything all at once in a matter of two weeks.”

Students said they appreciated the chance to get hands-on experience in a field they were considering but, before the trip at least, weren’t sure about. “It definitely opened my eyes to the world of conservation because I was able to talk to seven or eight research assistants about what they’re doing and why they’re doing it,” Fell said.

“For me, it was an opportunity to actually get out there and do things with the scientific community,” said Slifka. “It was a discovery time. How much of a researcher do I want to be and what kind of research appeals to me the most?” He found he’s equally interested in marine and terrestrial research.

Struble, who lives in New Jersey and is majoring in equine-facilitated therapeutics, attended an informational meeting about the trip because a friend was interested but when her friend didn’t show, she signed up herself. “As soon as I went to the meeting, I knew I wanted to do it,” she said.

During the two weeks in Mexico, the Wilson group spent the first week living in primitive conditions in tents, helping with projects like identifying and counting a variety of species—from insects, reptiles and amphibians to birds and mammals, including the pig-like peccary, ocelots, white-tail deer, coati and tapir.

Slifka describes a typical day in the forest as waking up at dawn, eating a quick breakfast and sometimes trekking past scorpions and other creatures on the way to the bathroom before heading out to the forest to search for animal tracks or set up nets to catch birds. “Then you sit and wait and you see what comes your way,” he said.

“It was very hands-on. The scientists let us be as much a part of it as they were,” said Fell. “I was able to weigh snakes, lizards, turtles, frogs. We took measurements, we identified the species, we kept track of what we would find, and then we would use a GIS [device to record where the tracks or animals were found].”

Fell enjoyed the jungle research the most. “I got to experience animals I would never get to experience here in the States, unless I went to the zoo,” she said. “Seeing them in their natural habitat is by far the best experience.”

Before they left the jungle, the group visited the ruins of the Calakmul Temples, which they rate among the trip’s most impactful experiences. “I’ve never seen so much green,” Slifka said of the tropical forest that stretched for miles and could be seen from the tops of the temples. “It’s pristine. Absolutely amazing.”

While jungle conditions were hot and harsh, accommodations were more comfortable the second week in Akumal, where students stayed in dormitory-style buildings with air-conditioning and a pool. There, five students, Maley and Mayer took scuba diving certification training so they could descend as far as 60 feet on dives. Struble opted instead to snorkel, which did not involve intense training and gave her more time to participate in research activities.

The second week was just as incredible as the first, according to Slifka, who said his diving group got to swim through a coral cave and saw barracuda, spiny lobster, sea turtles, stingrays and lots of fish.

Several of the students overcame mental hurdles in learning to scuba dive, including Fell. “I saw the boat drive away and I had a complete panic attack,” she said of the first day when students were taken out to the ocean after hours of practicing in shallow water. She received one-on-one help from the diving instructor, who held her hand as she descended a rope leading from the surface to the ocean floor. “I was able to see the bottom and I think that helped a lot,” Fell said. “By the time we got down there, I was in complete awe and was so happy I could do this.”

The trip was the first time many of the Wilson students had been in another country or experienced a different culture. “It was a really magical experience for the students,” Maley said. “It was such a period of personal growth for them.”

One of the biggest culture shocks centered on the food, Fell said. “We had a lot of rice and beans. I told my mom when I come back, I’m never eating rice and beans again.”

Struble had what she calls a “lightbulb” moment (Maley described it as an epiphany) during the trip when she suddenly understood how the decline of one species affects others up and down the food chain and understood the ways that all life is interconnected. “Seeing that firsthand and seeing the connections, it clicked for me,” said Struble, who came away more committed to protecting the environment. “It all came together in a big life circle, just seeing how what we do impacts habitat. It did change me, being down there.”

The students say they would like to go on more Opwall expeditions. “The amount of learning that is done within that period of time is absolutely immense because it’s hands-on, 24/7,” said Slifka. “You’re learning data collection techniques for different species and what is currently working out in the field now. It’s as current as it could possibly be.”

Fell returned inspired by the power of commitment. “It gave me hope that researchers can make a difference and if you get enough people that share the same interest, you can make even a bigger difference,” she said.

According to the Operation Wallacea website, opwall.com, the organization has been leading research expeditions since 1995. This past summer, Opwall ran two-week expeditions—each with specific research objectives—in 15 locations, including Peru, Madagascar, Indonesia, Transylvania, Croatia and Fiji.

Wilson scholarships help pay for students who can’t afford the trips on their own.  The Mexico expedition was the second time Wilson has participated with an Opwall expedition. In 2017, Mayer led a group to South Africa for a conservation biology course and on returning, said the experience was “transformative” for all students involved.

RELATED: Project Trans(m)it Unflappable Commencement Celebrated Under Bold, Blue Skies

Project Trans(m)it

Dancing Duets in the Digital Domain

by Courtney Gotham

Megan Mizanty, assistant professor of dance at Wilson College, had been successfully collaborating on modern dance performances with a group of three fellow dancers/choreographers. Then in 2013, one of the dancers moved to England to complete her doctoral studies. The group was faced with a dilemma—how to continue collaborating now that they were 3,000 miles apart.

Rather than seeing their geographic separation as an impediment, Mizanty and her collaborators Becca Weber in England, Lora Allen in Philadelphia and Andrea Lanzetti in New York used it as inspiration. They formed Project Trans(m)it to explore “dancing” with other dancers across the globe through technology and over digital media. Project Trans(m)it ultimately wants to determine if dancers thousands of miles from each other can collaborate on performances. They are also interested in discovering what might be gained or lost when movement is learned over technology. Mizanty says that if dance can be successfully “transmitted” digitally, “it gives you the world.”

The group proposed to create a duet, recruit pairs of dancers from different countries and see if they could “transmit” their original duet to the pairs without meeting in person. Allen choreographed a duet between Mizanty and Lanzetti. After the pair learned the routine, they recorded the choreography from multiple angles, edited the video and packaged it into a digital toolkit that was shared with eight dancers—four duet pairs—from four countries: Japan, Switzerland, Madagascar and the United States. The dancers then had two months to learn the duet, record it and send the video file back to Project Trans(m)it.

 

After receiving all of the video files, Mizanty, Allen and Lanzetti watched the performances closely, studying the slight variations in the movements from duet to duet, noting how things like a dancer’s build or a faster step provided a different reading of each movement. “I found myself memorizing the films of the dancers, noting the subtle differences between all of our international collaborators,” Mizanty recalled. “It’s a different way of knowing people and deeply listening to them physically.”

As Project Trans(m)it’s artists have discovered, technology provides a new lens for experiencing and studying movement. When they video-chatted with each other from their separate locations, they became conscious of the benefits and limitations of the digital connections. They could share ideas and perform new movements in real time, but screens could freeze when one dancer was demonstrating a move, audio could drop in the middle of a discussion, connections could be lost or delayed.

“We added a ‘dropping out’ section to the dance, mimicking the feelings of us freezing or losing connection in an online rehearsal,” Mizanty said. “In that sense, technology led us to new territories in the dance we wouldn’t have discovered otherwise.” By including the digital hiccups and incorporating them into the live dance, the dancers have blurred the lines between the real and virtual spaces, creating a third space where one becomes part of another.

In November 2018, Project Trans(m)it presented and performed the finished work at the Wimbledon College of Arts in London. The performance included videos of the duet performed by dancers in Japan, Switzerland, Madagascar and the U.S. projected onto screens and shown on monitors while Mizanty and Lanzetti performed the duet live in the space. The culminating performance explores the connection and disconnection of digital interaction.

It’s a physical interpretation of the connections between people communicating through technology—one moment the connection is smooth and flowing, both are in sync and responding to and feeding off of each other; then there are awkward moments of disconnection when both start to talk at the same time or both stop talking to let the other speak before their connection returns to a natural back-and-forth of two people communicating in sync with each other. Similarly, in one moment, the dancers are physically connected to one another through touch and movement, and in the next separated from each other and moving in different but seemingly coordinated trajectories before rejoining again.

“Project Trans(m)it would argue that [technology] connects us in the most profound ways,” Mizanty said. “Through the use of technology, I’ve been able to dance with a duo from Japan. I haven’t traveled to Japan yet, but I know how two Japanese dancers that I’ve never met move, and move with intention.”

At its core, movement is about connecting on a human level, and Project Trans(m)it’s use of technology can help further that connection globally, according to Mizanty.

For the dance world, she believes, Project Trans(m)it demonstrates that technology can enable a level of global collaboration that was inconceivable to previous generations of practitioners. Choreographers and dancers can now work with artists from around the world, furthering the study of dance and movement.

Project Trans(m)it also has something valuable to teach the non-dance world about human interactions in a global society, Mizanty said. She explained that she felt more “empathy” for the other performers thanks to their digital interactions. “It’s deep listening and the ability to see a lot of different languages and cultures and experiences. It’s taking the time to get to know a stranger. Movement is the universal language. What better way to connect with people.”

RELATED: Hands-On Conservation Unflappable Commencement Celebrated Under Bold, Blue Skies

Unflappable

Five Alumnae Find a Home at New Jersey Veterinary Hospital
by Coleen Dee Berry
photos by Daryl Stone

In an emergency, they are cool under pressure. Faced with a species or situation they have never encountered before, they are unflappable. Five Wilson veterinary medical technology graduates are making a big impression at New Jersey’s Red Bank Veterinary Hospital, a cutting-edge, 24/7, emergency critical care and specialty care facility.

“There’s not a department here that I would hesitate to send them to—they can handle them all,” said RBVH clinic manager Christina Giovannielli. “They all have a great foundation in medicine, a passion for caring for animals—and this confidence. Even if they are facing an unfamiliar procedure or an out-of-ordinary situation, their confidence shows.”

Raquel “Rocky” Feliciano ’13 examine a patient at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital.

Designated as a Level 1 Veterinary Trauma Center by the American College of Veterinary Emergency Critical Care, RBVH handles as many as 100 emergency cases a day, Giovannielli said. The facility operates 18 departments, including oncology, neurology, radiation therapy and pain management, and maintains a staff of approximately 350, including 30 certified veterinarian technicians. “I’ve worked for years with interns and CVTs from schools like Cornell and University of Pennsylvania, and the Wilson grads here are equal to any of them,” said Eric Glass, a veterinary neurologist at RBVH. “Their medical knowledge and professionalism are a credit to the program at Wilson.”

The five Wilson CVTs are the most technicians from any one school RBVH has employed at the same time, according to Giovannielli.

Daniela Kenmure ’14

Nicole Knop ’96 signed on with RBVH in 2009 and currently works in the oncology department, administering chemotherapy to animals with cancer. “The biggest challenges I face in oncology are when I explain to owners that chemotherapy in most cases is not going to cure their dog or cat. It’s intended to extend their life,” she said. “The other challenge is knowing that these animals that you spend week after week getting to know are (eventually) going to die. It is very emotional at times … but we work to give owners more quality time with their pets.”

Knop’s first assignment with RBVH was in the critical care and emergency unit, and she continues to assist with those cases. “I found out I’m very calm in these situations and I can do the job I need to do without panicking,” she said.

Victoria Alterio Verschilling ’14

 

Beginning in 2016, four more Wilson graduates joined Knop at RBVH. Daniela Kenmure ’14 was the first to be hired and then recruited her friend, Victoria Alterio Vierschilling ’14, who in turn urged two more CVT Wilson friends—Raquel “Rocky” Feliciano ’13 and Elizabeth Moore ’14—to join the practice.

Kenmure first worked as a CVT in the emergency department and now is a clinical staff trainer. Moore is an anesthesia technician in the special surgery department, assisting in operations such as cardiology and neurology. Vierschilling and Feliciano both work as technicians in the hospital’s avian and exotic pet department, as well as assisting with emergency and critical care cases. Their patients range from pets like parrots, cockatoos, skunks and rabbits to exotic or native animals from regional zoos. Recent zoo referrals have included a South American tamandua, also known as a lesser anteater, and an emu.

All five graduates are longtime New Jersey residents. Feliciano was born in Puerto Rico and moved to West Orange, N.J., when she was 10 years old. The other four grads grew up in the Monmouth and Ocean County area of the Jersey Shore and were familiar with RBVH from an early age. The hospital was founded as a smaller veterinary and emergency practice in 1986 before expanding and moving into its current facility in 2006.

“I was born and raised in Red Bank and as a little girl, I brought my pets here when it was Red Bank Animal,” Moore said. “I have always wanted to work with animals and my dream was to come here (to RBVH) to work.” At Wilson, Kenmure said she and Moore “would talk about working at Red Bank one day when we were together in anatomy lab—and here we are!” Knop, who was acquainted with RBVH while growing up in nearby West Long Branch, said when she returned to New Jersey after she was married, “I knew this is where I wanted to work.”

All five grads grew up with a love of caring for animals and each one said their quest to find a college that offered a bachelor’s degree in veterinary medical technology led them to Wilson. The College is one of only approximately 20 schools nationwide that has a four-year VMT program. Feliciano recalled that while visiting a college fair with her mother, she became discouraged because she hadn’t found a school offering a four-year program. As they were leaving the fair, her mother noticed a small table displaying a toy horse “and it was the Wilson table! I would have walked out if my mom hadn’t seen that stuffed horse,” Feliciano said.

Elizabeth Moore ’14 feeds one of the inpatients at RBVH.

Vierschilling had a slightly different path to Wilson. She originally wanted to attend culinary school until a spinal injury left her temporarily dependent on a walker and a cane. Her doctors warned her that culinary school at that point in her recovery would be too strenuous. “So I decided to pursue my other passion of caring for animals, and once I visited Wilson, I knew it was the place for me,” she said.

Knop credits her calmness in the face of emergencies to her Wilson education. “At Wilson, we were taught to ask questions and not just sit quietly. We were explained scenarios that we might see in actual practice and how to deal with them. Wilson enabled me to be more confident … because I felt that I not only had the book knowledge, but I also had hands-on experience.”

“Even if they are facing an unfamiliar procedure or an out-of-ordinary situation, their confidence shows.” —Christina Giovannielli, RBVH clinic manager

The VMT program and faculty at Wilson “helped me build a strong work ethic, be a team player and gave me the mindset to apply my knowledge and technical skills,” Moore said. Feliciano thanked the faculty for their “tough love. To say my time in their classes was easy would be a lie,” she said, but added that she gained “a strong foundation in veterinary medicine that gave me the tools to excel and allowed me to grow into the person I am today.”

Nicole Knop ’96 preps oncology patient for chemotherapy.

After graduation, Knop and the four friends all passed the Veterinary Technician National Exam to receive their CVT certification. RBVH’s Giovannielli noted that in New Jersey, veterinary technicians are not required to be certified. “I can see, from the work of the Wilson graduates here, the value of having a four-year program and receiving certification. It gives them a solid foundation of medical knowledge that they can build on with experience and it gives them that confidence. We’d like to see more New Jersey VMTs be certified.”

Both Kenmure and Vierschilling help with the New Jersey certification effort by teaching veterinary assistant courses as adjunct professors for Brookdale Community College. Their courses are held at the hospital. “We can describe a procedure and then take the students right in to watch the real thing,” Kenmure said. Both are also members of the New Jersey Veterinary Technicians and Assistants board, where the two work to review and process certifications.

Kenmure would like to see more of her fellow Wilson alumni at RBVH and often reaches out to other grads when new jobs are posted. “Slowly but surely, we are forming a little Wilson College technician army at Red Bank Veterinary Hospital,” she said. “The clinical managers often ask me if I have any more ‘Wilson friends’ to recruit whenever they are looking for new employees.” Giovannielli agrees. “We’ll definitely take more Wilson CVTs,” she said. “Send us more!”

********************************************

Superstorm Sandy
Daniela Kenmure ’14, Victoria Alterio Vierschilling ’14, Raquel “Rocky” Feliciano ’13 and Elizabeth Moore ’14 became fast friends at Wilson, bonding over their New Jersey roots and their love of animals. They appreciated Wilson’s close-knit community, as evidenced by the story Vierschilling and Kenmure recounted about the relief effort they organized when Superstorm Sandy hit the New Jersey shore in 2012.

All four had family and friends in the storm’s path. “Seeing on the news and internet how much my hometown was devastated by this horrific event was devastating,” Kenmure said. “I was longing to be home to help my community.” Vierschilling said she had no contact with family for days in the storm’s aftermath. “The support of the entire campus is what kept me going.”

The friends decided to organize a relief effort. Vierschilling recalled walking into Lenfest Commons a day after they sent out a plea for help “and the lobby was already full of stuff people had dropped off. It was amazing!” It took them two separate weekends to deliver the donations to their hometowns, according to Kenmure.

While in New Jersey, Vierschilling volunteered for several days at a shelter in Toms River to help reunite rescued pets with their displaced owners. She remembered one reunion in particular: “The man had lost everything—his home, all his belongings, but all he was thinking about was finding his dog,” she said. When volunteers located the dog and Vierschilling brought it into the shelter, “It let out this piercing cry when it saw its owner. The dog was crying, the man was crying, we all were crying. I was just happy I could be helping get them back together.”

********************************************

Red Bank Veterinary Hospital Fast Facts
The 58,000-square-foot hospital located in Tinton Falls, N.J., is part of the Compassion-First Pet Hospital network, which oversees 44 facilities nationwide. RBVH has:
› 25 examination rooms
› Four operating theaters
› 18 different departments, including oncology, neurology, cardiology, endoscopy and pain management
› Onsite laboratory, pharmacy and volunteer animal blood bank
› One of three linear accelerators in use nationwide for radiation therapy
› MRI and CAT scan onsite
› A “Good Samaritan” unit for injured wild animals such as rabbits, turtles and birds
› Pet rehab area, including water treadmill for dogs
› Staff on call and at the facility 24/7, 365 days a year
› No charges for euthanizing a pet

RELATED: Hands-On Conservation Project Trans(m)it Commencement Celebrated Under Bold, Blue Skies