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UWSP student steps toward graduation, future as a wildlife researcher

For the Metro Wire

This Saturday, Jacob Shurba will step across the stage at the University of Wisconsin-Stevens Point to accept his bachelor of science degree in wildlife ecology and management.

Three years ago, the steps he took as a sophomore transfer student from Lombard, Ill., led him to accepting a long-term undergraduate research opportunity at UW-Stevens Point, even before he started his first class. It resulted in him earning first author status in a professional research publication, all before he earned his degree.

“To come in as a transfer student, and get thrown right into research was excellent,” Shurba said. “It is important for students to learn the process and know what it takes to be a research biologist in the field.”

Not many students at other universities get the chance to do research at the undergraduate level, and only a handful will be a lead author, according to Wildlife Ecology Professor Shelli Dubay. At UW-Stevens Point, undergraduate research is a significant priority, she said.

“Having hands-on research opportunities sets up undergraduates for future careers,” she said. “It also prepares them for graduate school, makes them critical thinkers and helps them understand management decisions involving natural resources.”

Shurba first heard about the natural resources program at UW-Stevens Point while working as a wildlife rehabilitator in Illinois, with one year of college classes already complete. He came for a weekend visit and liked what he saw. After being accepted, he attended transfer student orientation and was encouraged to apply for research experience.

He did some online research of his own and found he shared Dubay’s interest in wildlife health. After one phone call that summer, she matched him with Matthew Broadway, a graduate student who was looking into abnormal deaths of prairie chickens, a threatened species in Wisconsin.

That fall, Broadway and Shurba began working closely with Rebecca Cole at the U.S. Geological Survey National Wildlife Health Center (NWHC) in Madison.

“We sent one bird to the center that was found with swelling in its crop,” Shurba said. “Inside they found gapeworms and stopped counting at 73.” The parasite was not well studied in wild bird populations, so the two spent the next year documenting and collecting more specimens.

Their research, “Gapeworm Presence and Prevalence in Wisconsin Greater Prairie Chickens,” was presented at the 2016 International Conference of the Wildlife Disease Association, with Shurba as first author. Broadway, Dubay and Cole were also listed, as well as UW-Stevens Point Wildlife Ecology Professor Jason Riddle and Scott Hull of the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. The collaboration and financial assistance from the NWHC and WDNR was a great benefit to the project, Dubay said.

At UW-Stevens Point, Shurba has continued prairie chicken research and also co-led a grey squirrel project with The Wildlife Society student organization. A member of the Herpetology Society, he cared for reptiles and amphibians within the College of Natural Resources. He also spent a few weeks in Kenya on a UW-Stevens Point summer study abroad trip, helping with community health, sustainable farming and nutrition issues and going on a wildlife safari.

“Jacob is inherently curious, and he cares about wildlife diseases,” Dubay said. “He took time to research the interests of specific faculty before coming to campus and so he came to the right person because we share the same interests. He was in my office to talk about the work his first week here.”

Dubay encourages future Pointers interested in undergraduate research to learn about faculty members and their professional interests. Having the same area of interest goes a long way.

“Put yourself out there,” she said. “Don’t be afraid to ask questions or talk to your professor. Be invested in the work you hope to do at UW-Stevens Point and in your future career.”

Shurba’s investment has paid off as he looks forward to attending graduate school and doing more work in parasitology. His career goals include identifying parasites that have zoonotic potential – that is the ability to spread from wildlife to humans – to keep both animals and people healthy.

“The undergraduate research I did at UW-Stevens Point taught me patience, flexibility, to make the work fun and most of all, to realize that my work was contributing to my field of study,” he said. “I’m excited to keep that work going.”