Life in a Laboratory

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Zoo InternQuest is a seven-week career exploration program for San Diego County high school juniors and seniors. Students have the unique opportunity to meet professionals working for the San Diego Zoo, Safari Park, and Institute for Conservation Research, learn about their jobs, then blog about their experience online. Follow their adventures here on the Zoo’s website!

Naomi_W4_picDr. Chris Tubbs is in the business of babies – but not human babies, and not as a keeper with animal babies. Nope, Dr. Tubbs is a Scientist, working off exhibit to uncover the details of animal fertility and pregnancy throughout the Zoo and Safari Park. And how does he do that? With poop.

Dr. Tubbs is one of about a dozen staff in the Reproductive Physiology Department at the Institute for Conservation Research. His focus is on molecular endocrinology: the study of hormones. Hormones are the chemical messengers of an organism, and their presence can be a signal of what’s going on inside the body. Dr. Tubbs uses these hormone “clues” to figure out when an animal is ovulating, if they are pregnant, and when a mother might have her baby. He can do this by extracting the hormones, specifically progesterone, from poop samples. His analysis of hormone levels plays a huge role in coordinating the birth of babies across the Zoo and Safari Park.

So how does one end up in such a specialized field? Dr. Tubbs said it was a stumble, not a plan, that got him into this line of work. He was studying to be a veterinarian at the University of Florida when he got hooked on lab work in a biology class his sophomore year. He stuck with it, and was soon working on his graduate degree with fish in a marine lab. He knew someone who was working at the Institute for Conservation Research, and they encouraged him to apply for a job there.

Now in his eighth year at the Institute, Dr. Tubbs is working on a project to determine the effects of diet on fertility in southern white rhinos. In addition to lab work, he analyzes and writes papers on his findings. Dr. Tubbs goes to conferences and universities to collaborate and share with other scientists, and speaks with the public, be it potential donors, or interns, like our group.

With so many different things to do, it comes as a surprise that the most challenging part of Dr. Tubbs’ day doesn’t have anything to do with science. Instead, it is convincing other people that the data he collects, pulled solely from the contents of a test tube, can be a reflection of the entire animal that it came from. The challenges, however, do not outweigh the fondness Dr. Tubbs has for his job. He enjoys being able to come up with his own projects and solve puzzles every time he goes in to work.

Dr. Tubbs’ advice to anyone looking to pursue a job as a lab researcher is fairly self-explanatory: get yourself in a lab. You’ll gain experience, get to know people interested in similar fields, and will be showcasing yourself to potential employers the whole time. Networking is a huge part of getting any job, Dr. Tubbs explained, and who you know is very important.

Through his own lab experience and networking, Dr. Tubbs was able to work his way into his current position. Though his job isn’t always glamourous, Dr. Tubbs knows that the research he does helps make breeding programs successful. The results he can glean from a tiny test tube reverberate outwards, helping iconic species in the Zoo, Safari Park, and around the globe.

Naomi, Careers Team
Week 4, Fall 2015