“It’s amazing how much you can learn from looking at poop,” says Tara Wilson, a junior at the School of Environmental and Forest Sciences (SEFS). “It totally blew my mind. You can know everything [about the animal]—if they’re malnourished, if they’re breeding, if they’re stressed in any way, what they’re eating.”
Wilson grew up in Detroit and transferred to the University of Washington to start the Winter Quarter in January 2012. She had already earned an Associate’s Degree back home, and she moved out to Seattle with her husband, Shane Unsworth, after he found as job as a data security analyst in the city.
Her adventures in scat began soon after arriving on campus when she attended a wildlife seminar about conservation canines that are specifically trained to sniff out animal droppings. For this particular talk, the dogs were snooping for orca poo. There’s only a small window to locate such scat, apparently, as it floats to the surface briefly before sinking out of reach. So the trainers would hold the dogs at the bow of the boat to locate the floaters as quickly as possible.
“You don’t often see that in a seminar,” says Wilson. “It’s just so out-of-the-box and creative to me—really innovative.”
Inspired by the science of that seminar, Wilson soon landed a weekly lab position with Professor Sam Wasser, director of the Center for Conservation Biology in the UW Biology Department. She and the other volunteer technicians are working on a host of projects, from extracting hormones to analyzing dolphin and polar bear scat.
“What’s special about the lab is that we use non-invasive techniques,” she says. “You don’t have to trap or tranquilize or stress out the animal. You can just follow them around and then collect and analyze their scat.”
The material they isolate enables scientists to explore a wide range of questions, says Wilson, and there are numerous applications for the research. In one case, an oil company in Alberta, Canada, is having the lab analyze caribou scat from oil sands to make sure the oil drilling isn’t endangering the health of the caribou population.
For Wilson, her lab and course work have quickly cultivated a strong career interest in conservation work, and she’s decided to focus on the wildlife conservation option as an Environmental Science and Resource Management (ESRM) major. Her favorite courses so far have been a class on Pacific Northwest ecosystems with Professor Emeritus Tom Hinckley, and also “Wildlife Biology and Conservation” with Professor Emeritus Dave Manuwal. “You could just tell [Professor Manuwal] is passionate about what he does, and he’s excited to get us passionate.”
She’s been so excited about school, in fact, that Wilson says she feels “like a big dork” for all the lectures and seminars she wants to attend around campus. “I’m the first one in my family to go to college, so sometimes I feel a little embarrassed because I’m very much a kid in a candy store here!”
Hard to blame her, as the pickin’s are good at SEFS when it comes to course offerings and research opportunities. Indeed Wilson is already looking ahead to potential graduate programs at UW, and she’s keeping an open mind about where her studies might lead her. “Anything I can do to help wildlife conservation,” she says. “I’d be thrilled to be part of that community in any way.”