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Student Spotlight: Jacob Veilleux

black rat snake

Jacob Veilleux, a Fisheries, Wildlife and Conservation Biology major, has spent more than a year getting to know the rat snakes at the Prairie Ridge Ecostation. His research project, supported by the CNR Student Assistance and Enrichment Fund, will provide an indepth look at how Snake Fungal Disease is affecting wildlife in our own backyards. When he isn’t tromping around in the field looking for snakes, Veilleux is an active participant in the University Scholars Program, Pre-Veterinary Club, Leopold Wildlife Club and intramural sports, especially flag football. He is also a recipient of the Hope Valley Forest Scholarship and the Thomas L. Quay Wildlife and Natural Resources Undergraduate Experiential Learning Award.

Tell us about your hands-on experience. 

During the past year, I have been involved in a project looking at Snake Fungal Disease (SFD) through the NC Museum of Natural Sciences. SFD is an emerging infectious disease occurring across eastern North America caused by the pathogen O. ophiodiicola. I began the project by tracking an SFD positive rat snake at Prairie Ridge Ecostation via radio telemetry. The animal previously underwent surgery at the museum for injuries caused by a weed wacker and was treated for SFD before being released.

Last spring, I received a research grant to expand the project to a larger scale. With the assistance of Dr. Dan Dombrowski at the museum and Dr. Gregory Lewbart at the NC State College of Veterinary Medicine, we developed a project looking at the health of the black rat snake population at Prairie Ridge and the incidence of SFD. The program is a capture-mark-recapture study where individuals are given a physical examination and then implanted with a microchip. Data is recorded on the snake’s coordinates, microhabitat, body condition score and severity of skin lesions or other SFD symptoms. In addition, blood testing is conducted using a lactate meter and i-STAT analyzer, as well as PCR testing for the disease pathogen O. ophiodiicola.

How did this experience impact you?

This research experience impacted me in a couple of different ways. One, it allowed me to utilize my classroom knowledge and implement it in the field. This was a rewarding experience because it proved to me that all the hard work I had invested in papers and exams the last several years was definitely worth it. Furthermore, it helped advance my understanding of veterinary medicine’s role in wildlife and conservation biology. I had the chance to meet several veterinarians in both North Carolina and Illinois that are working on Snake Fungal Disease, which was a great networking experience and insight into the field.

What did you learn about yourself during your experience?

Though I had a lot of support from my project supervisors, I was often acting independently when conducting my research. I was extremely fortunate to have gotten involved during my museum internship but wanted to take it a step further and expand the study to a larger scale. Under my own initiative, I received a research grant and made the most of the opportunity. Overall, this experience has taught me the importance of networking with professionals in my field and persistence in achieving my goals.

How has this opportunity or experience prepared you for your future career?

I hope to work in the field of One Health, where veterinarians, doctors, biologists and other scientists work together to solve global issues, many of which have huge implications for conservation biology. Coming from a degree program composed primarily of wildlife biologists, I believe there is extensive crossover room for veterinarians. This project allowed me to work closely with veterinarians and gain a greater insight into disease and wildlife research. Furthermore, it allowed me to implement the knowledge I learned in the classroom, such as capture-mark-recapture models, in the field.

How did this opportunity enhance your experience as a College of Natural Resources student?

This experience is a culmination of so many different classes and experiences I have had in my academic career. I originally developed the study as a project proposal in with the help of Dr. Krishna Pacifici. Using what I learned in his class about population health models and capture-mark-recapture studies, I put together a proposal that my project advisers were excited about. I then received an undergraduate research grant through my degree program, which will be used to fund all of the SFD PCR disease testing that is sent to the UIUC CVM Wildlife Epidemiology Lab. Additionally, this entire project was made possible by my internship with the NC Museum of Natural Sciences, which I was able to gain class credit for last fall. All these factors, and many more, helped create this opportunity, so I view it as a senior keystone project that encapsulated everything I learned during my time in the College of Natural Resources.

What did you enjoy most about your experience?

The best part of this experience was that I got to work outside looking for animals. Though snakes aren’t exactly everyone’s favorite creature, they are fascinating animals. By tracking one rat snake for the past year, I was able to learn the individual’s tendencies and came to better appreciate how well adapted for survival they are. Furthermore, the health and disease aspect of this research allowed me to work with several wildlife veterinarians, which was a tremendous career-building experience.

Any advice to incoming students thinking about your major, field of study or research focus?

If you come across an internship or research experience you find interesting, don’t hesitate to ask about getting involved. Sometimes a lab won’t be able to bring you on, but it never hurts to ask. The more experience you can get, the quicker you will find out what you want to do in your career. Additionally, it will open up more doors to you, and allow for you to build relationships with people already in the field.

What do you enjoy most about being a College of Natural Resources student?

All programs within the College of Natural Resources provide academic and research opportunities that other college departments do not necessarily have. My degree program, Fisheries, Wildlife, and Conservation Biology, emphasizes the importance of gaining experience outside of the classroom, and I am very happy they do so. Not only does it help build a good resume, but these out-of-class experiences can help you decide what career you want to focus on and can also be a great chance to network. Additionally, the faculty and staff are outstanding and go out of their way to assist students.