Cornell Wildlife Health Center starts new fund to get more students into the wild

For aspiring wildlife veterinarians at Cornell, there is plenty to learn in classrooms, laboratories, and Cornell’s Janet L. Swanson Wildlife Hospital, which treats native wild animals. But nothing can replace the types of learning that occur during immersive fieldwork experiences.

The Cornell Wildlife Health Center (CWHC) has launched a new Student Support Fund to make sure students have access to such opportunities. The fund will support off-campus apprenticeships working with free-ranging or captive wildlife. It will also support student-driven, on-campus wildlife research and student travel to present at professional conferences on wildlife health and conservation.

“We want our students to learn how to, for example, work in remote areas successfully — to enable what often turn out to be life-changing experiences,” explained Steve Osofsky, D.V.M. ‘89, the Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health and Health Policy at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and the Cornell Wildlife Health Center’s director. “We also recognize it’s extremely important for Cornell students to get out in the world to meet and work with other veterinarians, to begin to develop relationships with future colleagues. We want to open as many doors as possible for our students. At the same time, wildlife needs all the help it can get right now.”

Osofsky knows these things from first-hand experience. Not long after graduating from the College of Veterinary Medicine, he served as the first veterinarian for the Botswana Department of Wildlife & National Parks in the early 1990s, which involved things like hanging out of helicopters to dart elephants. Over the span of his career in conservation, he has also been a zoo veterinarian; biodiversity program advisor at the U. S. Agency for International Development; and the manager of rhino, elephant and tiger conservation programs at the World Wildlife Fund. He spent much of his career with the Wildlife Conservation Society, and led their Wildlife Health & Health Policy Program before returning to Cornell in 2016 with the goal of expanding training and experiential learning for the next generation of wildlife veterinarians — helping younger colleagues to learn from his generation’s own mistakes and successes.

Steve Osofsky
Steve Osofsky, D.V.M. ‘89, the Jay Hyman Professor of Wildlife Health and Health Policy at Cornell University’s College of Veterinary Medicine, and  Cornell Wildlife Health Center director.

One of Osofsky’s formative experiences as a Cornell veterinary student was apprenticing with the  Florida Panther Project in and around the Everglades, an opportunity sponsored by the Veterinary College’s Expanding Horizons program in 1987, before it was restricted to developing countries.

“Working with wildlife, especially an endangered species, is an honor and a privilege,” he said. “My earliest mentors made it clear to me through their own actions that one has to make the most of every opportunity one has to handle a wild animal.”

Osofsky spent the summer under the mentorship of the Florida Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission’s wildlife veterinarian; the team’s focus was on trying to understand why

the population was shrinking. Every panther the team handled had a full range of measurements and biomedical samples collected in order to improve understanding of the overall health and genetic diversity of Florida’s panthers. At the time, there were only approximately 40 Florida panthers remaining in the wild. Today, thanks to conservation efforts informed by robust science, there are more than 200.

“Whenever you have your hands on an animal like that, it’s your job — your responsibility — to learn as much as you can,” Osofsky said. “That individual animal, subjected to being anesthetized in the field and radio collared, is essentially making a sacrifice for its species, serving as an ambassador so-to-speak, so you better get every sample you can — blood, urine, feces, skin biopsies, hair, ectoparasites and so on. The more you learn, the more you can help that species recover over time.”

Now, Osofsky and faculty colleagues involved in the Cornell Wildlife Health Center want to enable Cornell students to obtain similar experiences. The application portal for the Cornell Wildlife Center Student Support Fund opened this month. Students are responsible for finding an opportunity that ideally spans at least eight weeks and submitting a proposal describing the work they hope to do. They can receive up to $4,000 for room, board, and travel costs.

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Many alumni have gone on to pursue careers in wildlife health, like Sarah Balik ’15, DVM ’19. Photo provided.

“There’s currently a limited number of real-world training opportunities for vet students passionate about wildlife conservation, and the ones that exist are usually highly competitive,” explained Helen Lee ’03, M.B.A. ‘20, assistant director of wildlife health and health policy at Cornell, who helped develop the fund. “The Student Support Fund will enable Cornell students to have better access to those valuable experiences, or to create their own.”

The center hopes to fund up to six projects this coming summer, and that the fund will grow to be able to support even more experiences in the future. Osofsky is seeking a special donor interested in helping to sustain this endeavor on into the future.

This new fund complements Cornell’s Expanding Horizons program, which currently funds veterinary experiential learning in developing countries only. Thus, the new CWHC Student Support Fund will restore support for students to be able to work anywhere else in the world, including in the United States, as long as they are working with free-ranging or captive wildlife under the mentorship of a veterinarian.

“Looking around, I see a lot of opportunities in and outside of the developing world that our students should be taking advantage of,” he said. “Students can gain experience in developing countries through the Expanding Horizons program, as I also did as a Cornell student, and anywhere else through the new CWHC Student Support Fund.”

“So much of what you learn in these types of experiences goes beyond veterinary medicine,” Osofsky said. “Fieldwork often requires bushcraft, logistics management, and very, very careful planning. Human safety is of course very important, and field veterinarians are often responsible for the health and safety of their teams,” he said. “You don’t necessarily learn these skills in veterinary school. We want to prepare our students for any eventuality; we want them to understand the ingredients that make for successful field operations.”

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The new fund complements Cornell’s Expanding Horizons program, which currently funds veterinary experiential learning in developing countries only. Thus, the new CWHC Student Support Fund will restore support for students to be able to work anywhere else in the world, including in the United States, as long as they are working with free-ranging or captive wildlife under the mentorship of a veterinarian. Photo: CVM/Jonathan King

As part of the fund, students can also apply for up to $1000 to cover diagnostics, lab materials, and publication fees for an on-campus research project, or up to $1000 to cover registration and travel costs to present their work at a professional conference. Sara Childs-Sanford, D.V.M.’99,  section chief at the Swanson Wildlife Hospital and member of the CWHC Faculty Steering Committee, has been a strong advocate for the on-campus research and student conference presentations dimensions of the fund, noting, “Clinical research at the Wildlife Hospital can often progress quickly, with new diseases or disease presentations being recognized, and research that spans from individual patients to the population level,” she says. “The flexibility of this part of the fund will make it easier for students to jump in and help take a project through to completion, including sharing their findings with others – a great experience for them in real world collaboration, discovery, and impact in the field of wildlife health.”

You can learn more about the Cornell Wildlife Health Center Student Support Fund at https://wildlife.cornell.edu/resources/student-experience/student-support-fund.

Written by Sheri Hall