Collegiate Parasitology Class Learns Via Hands-On Experience
When a sprawling wildlife conservation center is just a 28-mile drive from a college campus, it makes sense to capitalize on learning opportunities.
Dr. Kristin Herrmann, Associate Professor in the Department of Biological Sciences at Tarleton State University, did just that in October when she brought her parasitology students to learn from Fossil Rim’s animal health and animal care departments.
“I’d met (Director of Animal Health Dr.) Holly (Haefele) a couple of times previously, and I was aware of my students’ interest in taking a trip there to learn about parasites,” Herrmann said. “I’d also met with (Executive Director) Kelley (Snodgrass) earlier this year when he visited Tarleton, and we talked about collaborations like this. He was particularly interested in parasite work and getting some help with the issues the staff faces with them.”
The parasitology students are mostly juniors and seniors.
“The class focuses on parasites of human and veterinary importance,” she said. “Most of the students are pre-vet, but there are a couple of pre-med and the rest just have an interest in parasites, whether they are focused on wildlife, zoology, or general biology.”
Fossil Rim Veterinary Fellow Dr. Lauren Schmidt explained what was done during the visit.
“We were teaching them about the helminths (parasites) that we see in our population of animals, specifically hoofstock,” Schmidt said. “We did briefly discuss potential parasites for our carnivores. Then, we split them into groups, and the first group went out with (Director of Animal Care) Adam (Eyres) to collect fecal samples after watching specific addax (antelope) defecate. They brought the samples back to the vet clinic and we showed the students how to process them with a technique called Modified McMaster Test.”
This is a flotation test that separates parasite eggs from feces. The test uses a special microscope slide with a grid that allows for calculation of the number of eggs per gram in the manure.
“Are they strongyle eggs – most likely Haemonchus?” said Schmidt. “Are they Coccidia cysts? Are they Trichuris? Those are the parasites mostly likely to be found in our hoofstock population.”
The goal for Schmidt and the animal health staff was to give the students some real-life application of taking a fecal sample and accurately detecting and identifying parasites, as well as understanding more about the potential parasites at Fossil Rim.
“Traditionally, with exotic hoofstock and domestic cattle, the idea has been to deworm them regularly,” Schmidt said. “Unfortunately, this has built up a lot of resistance in the parasite populations over the years. Now, we take special care to selectively test the feces of individual animals to identify what their specific parasite burden is. If it has a high parasite burden with respect to the other animals of the species, we deworm that specific animal.”
Each student assessed the parasite population within a fecal sample from a particular animal, which could be identified by the number on its ear tag.
“Do we need to deworm that animal based on its parasite burden or not?” Schmidt said. “That’s generally good husbandry and helps reduce the risk of parasites developing resistance to a certain drug. Spring is peak season for parasites here, and the main parasite we encounter is Haemonchus.
“A year with a lot of rain increases the risk. To help combat it, we do prescribed burning for the grazing pastures.”
Taylor Karr, set to graduate in May 2020 from Tarleton, is an animal science major with a concentration of pre-vet and a biology minor. She shared her thoughts on the Fossil Rim learning opportunity.
“It was more engaging and educational than I expected,” she said. “I did not think we would have the opportunity to take part in many different aspects that are done on a daily basis at Fossil Rim. I enjoyed getting to talk with the veterinarian, veterinary technician, and (director of animal care) about the different jobs and requirements they have on a daily basis. Being able to relate what I am learning in class to real-world situations is very encouraging and an eye-opening opportunity.”
There are a bevy of domestic animals like horses and cattle in and around Stephenville, where Tarleton is located, but not so much when it comes to exotic animals.
“I do not get a whole lot of exposure to exotics in my normal work and school environment,” Karr said. “So, being able to discuss exotic species was very interesting and informational, seeing the similarities and differences between them and our domestics. It is also very encouraging to see individuals passionate about the care of our world’s exotic species.”
What were some key takeaways for Karr from the visit and how did the staff aid her learning?
“I learned of the constant battle that exotic species veterinarians and caretakers have with parasites, the ability to treat these animals, and the unavailability of (documented) knowledge on many exotic species,” Karr said. “The opportunity to be hands-on with each aspect of this process made the experience much more enjoyable and memorable. The Fossil Rim employees actually seemed to enjoy having us there and answering all of our questions.”
Finally, how is Karr liking the parasitology class in general and could it potentially benefit her professional goals?
“Overall, I have enjoyed the class, as far as being able to learn about what we usually do not think about in our daily lives here in the U.S.,” she said. “Seeing the impact that parasites have on diverse societies of the world is very interesting. I’ve also come to realize the difficulty in addressing all of the potential issues parasites can present.
“My long-term, professional goal is to become a mixed, small and large-animal veterinarian. One day, I hope to own my own practice so I have the ability to make an impact for my community. As a veterinarian, it will be my duty to not only be the animal’s advocate, but to educate individuals of the animal and agriculture industries.”
Like her student, Herrmann appreciated that the visit was not purely observational.
“Anything that brings them to Fossil Rim – I think my students are really excited about it,” Herrmann said. “The main feedback I got was that they enjoyed it even more than they expected. I told them beforehand, ‘It takes a special person to play with poop.’ All of us enjoyed the connection of the entire experience; we didn’t just come in and help with one step.
“Going with Adam to wait for an animal to defecate and collecting the sample to bring to the clinic for analysis is more helpful to get the full picture than arriving and working with pre-collected samples. I was impressed with the thoroughness and organization of the staff, because we are a decent-sized group for the size of the clinic, but the staff smoothly involved everyone.”
The Modified McMaster Test was not a foreign concept to the students, but it certainly was not familiar territory, either.
“Running that test was a new experience for the students,” Herrmann said. “They’d read about it, but this was their first opportunity to apply it. It was actually the first time for me to perform it, as well. I’m about to start a research project that will use the Modified McMaster, and talking to the veterinarians about the methodology to tweak it for various organisms was very beneficial for me personally. The students had previously learned about some of the parasites we saw, but others were new to them.”
Herrmann teaches this class each fall semester, and she is already thinking about the next Fossil Rim visit.
“I loved the combination of a mini-lecture, which helped the students understand the importance of testing for parasites and parasite management issues the veterinarians face, along with a hands-on methodology,” she said. “The students discovered what questions can be answered through fecal sample analysis and went through the method itself that allows for data collection.
“I hope Holly will let me bring out my class again next fall. I know the vet staff is looking at applications for a hoofstock parasite intern, and I plan to meet with Holly and Adam, once that intern is selected, to discuss a potential project for that person.”
It was not that long ago when Schmidt was the student in animal health learning opportunities while attending the University of Illinois, as opposed to the teacher, which can only help her cause to reach students nowadays.
“I think it is good for these students to see the big picture, in terms of understanding how to identify parasites and how to apply what they learn,” Schmidt said. “As I’m teaching, I stress to them why it is important; it’s not just theoretical. This was my first time to help with a lab at Fossil Rim.
“I’m interested to know what the students liked about the experience. I know we want to do what is most effective in helping them learn.”
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