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Collaborating for Conservation

A visit with Lori Eggert, Associate Professor of Biological Sciences

By Kelly Washatka
Published: - Topics: biology genetics genetics in parasitology conservation forest elephants

For Associate Professor of Biology Lori Eggert, collaboration is at the heart of everything she does. From local to international projects, and even within her lab, collaboration is invaluable. Dr. Eggert’s life and research are a testament to the amazing feats that can be accomplished with coordinated, hard work from many different, devoted sources.

Seeing the joy with which Dr. Eggert talks about her work, you would never imagine this wasn’t her original choice of profession. Going into college, she had every intention of becoming a veterinarian, and plenty of passion to back it up. However, near the end of her undergraduate education she stopped to take a hard, honest look at herself and came to a difficult realization. After spending some time working with a veterinarian, Dr. Eggert explains, “slowly but surely I began to realize that I would make a pretty poor small business owner. And that’s what you have to be when you’re a veterinarian.” However, rather than let the passion she had for her degree fizzle out, she “started casting around looking for what else I could do with a biology degree.” When Dr. Oliver Ryder, a prominent conservation geneticist who works with the San Diego Zoological Society, came to speak to her class, Dr. Eggert “was instantly entranced; so I walked up to him, got my guts up and said ‘I want to work with you’.” From that gutsy move a long relationship was formed, one that would take her through her PhD and shape her future work.

Dr. Eggert summarizes the overall goal of her work as “learning about the ecology of species using molecular genetics techniques.” These techniques consist primarily of collecting noninvasive trace samples—such as dung or hair—and using them as sources for the animal’s DNA. The trace samples allow her to study animals without having to handle them through darting and sedation. This is an important tactic when dealing with dangerous animals, such as bears and elephants, and animals that can be hard to find, such as otters. Dr. Eggert works on many different projects both in the field and in the lab based on this type of genetic work. The Polymerase Chain Reaction (PCR) is the genetic technique used most in Dr. Eggert’s lab, as it allows for genetic studies using the degraded DNA that comes from the trace samples.

Though currently she is working on several projects, Dr. Eggert’s strongest and most long-lasting initiative is on elephants. One recent project focuses on an area in which the Maasai people in East Africa have allowed the reintegration of wildlife into their native lands in hopes of encouraging eco-tourism. What interested Dr. Eggert was the nature of the elephants moving into the region, such as whether they were family groups or lone individuals. She explains the importance of this study in the following terms: “that’s going to matter a lot…because if they’re lone elephants without the social structure that is typical of savanna elephants they’re likely to cause problems. But if they’re family groups they’re more likely to live at peace with the local people.”

The elephant project is a perfect example of how collaborative efforts can lead to change and growth in investigations as they progress. First, the methods used on this project have been applied to many other initiatives. Another exciting development occurred when Dr. Eggert’s team began a study of crop-raiding elephants in order to better understand the reasons behind and possible strategies for preventing this problematic behavior. Dr. Eggert and her team became the first to establish the fact that crop-raiding individuals had higher levels of stress, and they plan to continue their studies to try to figure out if this is a cause or effect relationship. The projects just keep on building, one step leading to the next.

Not only does Dr. Eggert’s work have major influence on international conservation efforts, but it also registers a significant impact locally. One of her current projects, in collaboration with Dr. Matthew Gompper in the School of Natural Resources, focuses on raccoon populations in urban areas. This study investigates the role of host genetics in parasitology. Dr. Eggert explains this initiative by observing that, “since raccoons have large outbred populations and a typical suite of parasites and diseases, they’re a perfect model for studying disease ecology.” This kind of research is important, because the sorts of problems raccoons can share with our domestic animals range from ticks to more serious diseases like rabies. By studying issues in raccoon populations, we can gain a better understanding of and prepare more effectively for parasites and diseases that may become more prevalent in the future.

The Missouri Bear project in the Eggert lab is part of a more extensive initiative, which plays a big role in raising public awareness about local wildlife. This larger project is funded by the Missouri Department of Conservation (MDC), which works hard to educate the public about simple things, like keeping pets and food indoors when there is a bear population nearby. As Dr. Eggert explains, “the reason that’s so important is that the public is really interested in bears, and there is the potential for interactions with people. MDC collaborates with university scientists to obtain the information that they can use to educate the public.” Population studies like this one can also have a major influence on hunting. By keeping track of populations, studies can help MDC determine the dates, length, and permissible limits on animals taken, as well as track changes in the population of game over the season.

Collaboration also happens within the lab, with the graduate and undergraduate students that participate in this exciting work. Graduate students are drawn in from all around the country, but Dr. Eggert says that “the big surprise was how much fun I have working with undergraduates!” Again, unexpected growth came out of the collaboration; one particularly gifted undergraduate showed enough passion and initiative to construct her very own investigation. She began the Missouri Bear project mentioned above as a preliminary study over the summer, and, with the help of the resource scientists at MDC, ran it using Dr. Eggert’s lab and techniques. With obvious excitement and pride, Dr. Eggert states that “the student’s project began something that we wouldn’t have done any other way.”

Not only does Dr. Eggert’s work have multiple effects on the outside world, but those projects also serve multiple purposes in her life. She uses her research efforts to enrich her teaching, noting that “when I’m lecturing about a particular topic, I know my students probably get tired of hearing how it applies to elephants”–but hear it they do. After using her experience to put a unique spin on General Ecology, she was given the opportunity to craft a class completely of her own making. She created a Molecular Ecology class, in which her goal “was to give the students skills that they could use when they left here,” whether for graduate school or for professional lab work. With yet another cheerful smile Dr. Eggert reports that “it was really well received and I had a blast teaching it.”

In all aspects of her life, Dr. Eggert’s collaborations come full circle to create a deeper understanding of the world she studies and her experience within it. In her words, said with a genuine and charming smile, “it’s a pleasure to collaborate with people and it allows us to have a much bigger, broader scope to our work.” It will be exciting for everyone to see how these collaborations grow in the future.