Joint grad program trains wildlife conservation scientists

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Joe Schwartz

At a time when extinction threatens nearly one-quarter of all known vertebrate species, Cornell and the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute (SCBI) have teamed up to offer a new shared doctoral program that will train the next generation of wildlife conservation scientists.

The Cornell-Smithsonian Joint Graduate Training Program (JGTP) began accepting applications this month to train students who will leverage basic research at Cornell with conservation initiatives pioneered by one of the nation's pre-eminent wildlife research institutes. Using the facilities, resources and expertise at both institutions, students will learn to become independent investigators equipped to study and preserve some of the rarest species on the planet.

"We are in the midst of Earth's sixth mass extinction, and this crisis is manmade," said Alex Travis, director of the Cornell Center for Wildlife Conservation, who helped organize the program. "Although we must continue to take every effort to preserve natural ecosystems, numbers of more and more species have dropped so low that they require focused conservation efforts. We want to train top students in a setting in which they will be able to apply basic scientific approaches and cutting-edge techniques to the preservation of biodiversity. The knowledge these collaborations generate will then help solve real conservation problems around the world."

Students in the five-year program benefit from the dual mentorship of a Cornell faculty member and an SCBI staff scientist. Collaborative research projects will utilize resources in Ithaca and SCBI campuses (in Front Royal, Va., and Washington, D.C.), allowing students the opportunity to work with advanced biomedical facilities at Cornell and endangered species populations such as cheetahs, clouded leopards, cranes and oryx at SCBI.

Jennifer Nagashima, the first JGTP student admitted during last year's pilot phase, for example, works on canine reproduction. She studies aspects of female reproduction at SCBI, where she works on in-vitro egg maturation and fertility synchronization. In the Travis lab, she is learning new technologies to preserve genetic resources of male animals using spermatogonial stem cells. She's also synthesizing both lines of training in studies on assisted reproduction techniques such as in-vitro fertilization and embryo transfer. She has rounded out her studies by delving into how hormones control the canine reproductive cycle with Ned Place, a reproductive endocrinologist at Cornell.

"These topics are highly complementary, and Jennifer's study benefits tremendously from her work in these three labs," said Travis. "Bringing these skills together could help manage captive populations of endangered canids such as the African wild hog and South America's maned wolf. Interestingly, these same approaches could help dog breeders filter diseases out of domestic populations while also helping humans. There are over 400 human diseases having similarity to diseases in dogs. Identifying genetic causes of disease can then benefit everyone."

Carly Hodes is a writer at the College of Veterinary Medicine.


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