Rockland resident to graduate URI as top wildlife biology major

Posted on
Aims for career as animal keeper at zoo, aquarium

KINGSTON, R.I. – May 19, 2011 – Sarah Donlan is well on her way to turning her passion for wildlife into a career. As the Rockland, Mass., resident prepares to graduate from the University of Rhode Island this weekend, she does so as the recipient of the University Academic Excellence Award as the school’s top wildlife biology major.

“I’ve always liked nature and wildlife, and I used to think I wanted to be a marine biologist, until I realized that I get seasick,” Donlan said with a laugh. “So I decided to focus on terrestrial animals, especially birds of prey.”

During her four years at URI, Donlan took advantage of several opportunities to get hands-on research experience.

Working with Professor Scott McWilliams, she conducted an isotope analysis of the feathers of a species of shorebird that migrates from South America to Canada in an effort to identify sites that are important stopover points along the way. She also studied the fruits and insects that songbirds feed upon when they stopover on Block Island during migration.

“For that project, we wanted to learn what food resources are most important to them,” said the URI honors student who will graduate with a 3.98 grade point average (out of 4). “If you know what the birds are eating, you know what resources that may need to be conserved to protect them.”

This spring she also helped with a project to assess food preferences of captive sparrows to determine how their food choices affect their nutrition.

One important lesson she learned from all of this work was that she did not enjoy the fieldwork involved in this type of research. So she tried her hand at an internship at the New England Wildlife Center in Weymouth last summer, and she absolutely loved it.

“I really loved the hands-on aspect of working with the animals and interacting with them every day,” Donlan said. “We got orphaned or injured or sick animals and treated them until they could be released. We had lots of songbirds, raccoons, squirrels, skunks and even an occasional hawk or owl. I especially liked participating in surgeries and helping with veterinary treatments.”

That experience convinced her to pursue a career at a wildlife center, zoo or aquarium. This summer she will intern at New England Aquarium in Boston, where she will work behind the scenes caring for animals in the new shark touch-tank, as well as jellyfish, shorebirds, amphibians and quarantined fish.

“Hopefully I’ll be able to get a job out of this aquarium experience,” said Donlan, “Ultimately I would like to be an animal keeper at a zoo or aquarium, or perhaps conduct laboratory research related to wildlife.”

In nominating Donlan for the University Academic Excellence Award, Prof. McWilliams described her as “an outstanding student who accomplished much outside the classroom. She’s funny, perceptive, responsible and hard working.”

All characteristics that are certain to carry Donlan far in her career.