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Sam Decker: An Award-Winning Student's Pursuit of a Research-Based Welfare Management Career

I have chosen my undergraduate program and extra-curricular experiences to focus on fields that (1) promote public education, (2) engage in community outreach, (3) emphasize ethical practice, and (4) adapt to cultural changes. As I graduate from Michigan State University, I know that my experiences will continue to guide my professional and academic pathways.Portrait of Sam Decker wearing graduation hat and gown

During spring break of my freshman year, I participated in a study away program at Disney World and SeaWorld to observe how these companies incorporated science into their businesses. Behind scenes tours of Disney’s Animal Kingdom and SeaWorld introduced me to zoology and a prominent focus on public education. Upon returning to Michigan State University, I declared my major in zoology and minor in cognitive science.

During summer 2015, I participated in a 14-week animal care internship at John Ball Zoo where I worked closely with animal care staff. My internship included creating a project that would benefit the zoo. First, I composed detailed animal fact sheets for the education department to provide guests up to date information about conservation efforts on behalf of many species represented in the zoo. Second, I collaborated with a maintenance intern to measure and diagram each animal exhibit, enabling animal care staff to identify areas of concern and design improvements.

In my sophomore year, I was selected to join the MSU Tower Guard: a sophomore honors organization that works with MSU's Resource Center for Persons with Disabilities. Members primarily work to provide resources (e.g., online textbooks, reading exams, tutoring, etc.) for blind or visually impaired students and faculty. One such project involved designing brail graphs and figures for an introductory physics course. Members also organize an annual Shamrock 5k to raise proceeds for the RCPD and thank staff and donors for their support.

Following my junior year, I had the opportunity to develop my own research project under Dr. Janette Boughman. The Boughman Laboratory studies sensory ecology in three-spined stickleback, a model species for behavior research. My research hypothesized that environmental variation during development would result in compensatory changes in the use of olfaction during social recognition. For my effort, I was awarded the MSU Honors College Hymen and Myriam Stein Research Scholarship, which helped offset living and research costs. The projects’ complexity required bringing on board two other undergraduates to assist with daily maintenance and conduct experimental trials. My responsibilities included undergraduate supervision, designing all protocols, and ensuring that objectives were met.

One of my primary career goals is to strengthen relationships between universities and animal care facilities to promote research-based welfare management. Specifically, implementing research-based welfare management in zoos will allow for adaptation to future generations’ demands and thereby preserve zoos as a cornerstone of public sustainability and conservation education. Current political discourse emphasizes the need for accessible information for all members of society. Until the message of conservation and sustainability can reach average citizens, the call for change will only echo in academic halls. I view zoos and aquariums as an underestimated resource for novel research and dissemination of information.

The Outstanding Academic Achievement and Promise in Zoology Award represents the contributions that MSU faculty and my peers have made to my academic program to best prepare me for a career in zoological study. Moving forward, the award will be a reminder of the countless people at MSU and other institutions that have influenced me during my undergraduate program.

Other awards I have received include the Board of Trustees Award from Michigan State University and an Ontario Ministry of Agriculture, Food and Rural Affairs High-Quality Personnel scholarship, which will help fund my Master of Science program at the University of Guelph in Canada under Professor Georgia Mason. The Mason Laboratory studies captive animal welfare, specializing in reducing stereotypic behavior and improving reproductive health in carnivores. My research will focus on developing appropriate enrichment programs for farm housed American mink and implementing such programs in the Canadian farm industry. While in Canada, I hope to incorporate new perspectives on scientific study and education in my approach to communicating with industry professionals and improving information accessibility.

My advice to current and future students is to ask questions. When presented with new information in a course, ask yourself whether the underlying argument makes sense. Engage with professors and teaching assistants to fully understand each hypothesis and thesis so that you can determine for yourself whether a better explanation is available. Continue asking questions until you receive an “I don’t know”, then take it upon yourself to find the answer. That is where science happens.