Thursday, July 13, 2017

Update from Quentin

Name: Quentin VanHoose
Class Year: Senior - Class of 2018
Hometown: Waynesville, Ohio
Internship: National Research Foundation Intern
Location: National Zoological Gardens of South Africa, Pretoria, Gauteng, South Africa

Hello once again from underneath the clear blue skies of Pretoria! Not only is our summer season their winter season here in the southern hemisphere, but here in the Gauteng province it is also their dry season, so folks here in Pretoria are likely to not see another drop of rain until November! With that, the skies here are crystal blue every single day - there’s never a single cloud in the sky! It’s quite the incredible contrast to the all-too-often cloudy skies back home in Ohio.

The view of the perfectly blue sky above the Pretoria skyline, as seen from the top of the zoo’s “mountain”

I know what you are thinking, but no, I have not just been sitting around enjoying the views and the weather since I last updated you all on my South African adventure! Things have been picking up here recently with regard to the research project I will be conducting during the rest of my stay here at the National Zoological Gardens, which will, indeed, be centered around the roan antelope I mentioned in my previous post! I could not be more thrilled! For this project, I will be looking at the immune marker diversity within the herd at the zoo’s Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre in comparison to that of 40 other herds across the country, all using newly developed markers. From there, I will conducting a parentage analysis on the four calves born to the herd this year, as well as on several of the older individuals whose parentage needs to be confirmed prior to sale.
While that certainly sounds like a lot of time in the lab (and it certainly is!), there is no need to fear because I will be escaping from the lab eventually! Towards the end of my time here, I will be going up to spend a week or so at the Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre to conduct a field study on intra and inter-specific competition at the roans’ feeding sites, to ensure that the roan are receiving their intended dosage of parasite medication, as they are a highly susceptible species.
So what have I done for my project so far? Well, slowly but surely I have been chipping away at all of the set-up work necessary and gaining more experience with the laboratory procedures before starting with my immune marker analyses. I first began the process with a day spent sorting through 2,500 vials of roan DNA to find 40 samples from 40 different facilities across the country to conduct my immune diversity comparison on. It might not sound like a difficult task, but when you are trying to find 40 different facilities with animals of known heritage that still have enough DNA left in their vials to actually be used… It becomes quite time consuming quite fast!
After my samples were all sorted away, I began shadowing one of the zoo’s premiere research assistants, Sonia Kropff, who has since taken me under her wing as I have continued practicing DNA extractions, the PCR process, making gels, and preparing PCR products for analysis in the genetic analysers. Over the past couple of weeks, I have grown much more comfortable with my laboratory skills,
and many of these techniques are beginning to become old hat. So far, we have begun optimizing primers usually used to target immune markers in cattle for use on the roan DNA samples, using gel electrophoresis and genetic analysers to see which primers work best on roan DNA; those will be the primers I use on my project. We just put the last plate of primers on the genetic analyser today, so on Monday we will be picking my primers! From there, we will repeat the process on the immune markers before using them together to analyze the roan samples.

A peek into the genetic analyzer

While I have certainly done a lot of work over the past couple of weeks, I have not forgotten to have some fun as well! In fact, just this past weekend, Dr. DesirĂ© Dalton, one of the senior researchers at the zoo and my supervisor, and her family took me out to Ludwig’s Roses for a late brunch. Ludwig’s Roses is one of, if not the, largest rose farm in the entirety of the southern hemisphere, and it is truly
impressive and truly beautiful - there are roses everywhere of all shapes, sizes, and colors! As beautiful as the gardens were, the food was just as delicious! I had an absolutely amazing rose cappuccino, which was the single best cup of coffee I have had during my stay in South Africa, and a delightfully fresh salad, with a plethora of greens, vegetables, and sprouts from the farm’s own garden.

The absolutely divine rose cappuccino from the cafĂ© at Ludwig’s Roses

On Monday, I also made a return visit to the Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre with Dr. Jennie, one of the zoo’s vets. While this trip was technically work, and I had to wake up at 4:30 in the morning in order for us to be on the road by 6:00am, I still had an absolute blast. The zoo’s vets make a
monthly visit to Mokopane to check up on the animals there, but this trip was special because I was riding along to help collect some new samples for my project! There are two young roan bulls in the herd, one being almost three and the other being close to five, which are quickly approaching sexual maturity and need to be moved out of the herd; however, seeing as these animals are semi-wild, they have not been able to confirm their mothers; that is where I come in! I will be conducting parentage analyses on these young bulls (and this year’s calves, whose samples I will collect on my next visit to the facility), so that their bloodline can be traced and presented to potential buyers.
How does one collect blood from an animal as large and rambunctious as a young roan bull? You dart them, of course! If you have ever seen a documentary about African parks and seen translocations, that is exactly what it was like, and it was such an amazing experience to witness and be a part of… It was so exciting! I was tasked as time keeper, so I had to keep track of when the dart hit, when the animal became taxic (wobbly), when it went down, when the reversal was given, and when it got back up again.. In total, the whole process, start to finish, took only 32 minutes! In addition to sampling blood for my project, blood was sampled for an official hybridization report, as roans must be purebred southern roans to be sold or translocated in South Africa, the animal was outfitted with ear tags and a microchip, and his hooves were trimmed… He got the full work over!

After the young bull went down, Dr. Jennie and the Mokopane Biodiversity Conservation Centre team quickly went to work on collecting our samples and tagging the animal for future recognition.

Mani-pedi, antelope-style!

Needless to say, waking up was a little rough!
But it was not long before he was back on his feet!

I am constantly amazed by each and every once-in-a-lifetime experience that I have had thus far in South Africa, and they do not appear to be slowing down anytime soon! I cannot wait to share them with you all as they come, but until next time! -- Quentin x

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