Meet Sian Wilcox: Endocrinology Industrial Placement Student
Sian is a pharmacology student from the University of Manchester who came to the zoo to get more lab-based skills after having really enjoyed an endocrinology module. Now that her placement year is reaching an end, she reflects on the time she spent at Chester Zoo.
Please, would you tell us a bit more about your project at Chester Zoo?
“I was working towards developing a field method for storing thyroid hormones in the field, looking at three main species: black rhino, Grevy’s zebra and African elephant. These species were chosen because there are Chester Zoo Conservation Scholars and Fellows working in the field who are interested in analysing thyroid hormone concentrations in these species.
"In the field, you don’t always have access to freezers and other equipment which runs on electricity so faecal samples are stored on C8 cartridges. The sample must be loaded in an optimal concentration of alcohol, but no one had tested what the best concentration of alcohol should be, so I have been investigating which concentration of alcohol was best for storing the faecal samples on these cartridges.
"We found that about 40% concentration was optimal but we noticed that we were getting a lower recovery than we expected. We were putting in a known concentration of a synthetic hormone and were only getting back about 50% of what we were putting in, so quite a lot was being lost during the process!
"We realised that the structure of the hormone meant that it was able to stick to silica groups present in both the cartridges and the glassware we were using during the extraction process. We found that using plastic tubes rather than glass tubes significantly improved the recovery levels.
"I also extracted hormones from my three sample species using the controlled lab method and the new field method that I had been optimising to see whether they were comparable. They were correlated for all of the species but only two of them were significant: the Grevy’s zebra and the African elephant. We were, however, still getting very low recovery concentrations from those samples, so it’s still not perfect. We wouldn’t be able to roll it out in the field just yet as further method development is required, but it’s showing lots of potential!
"Once fully developed, it could be used to analyse thyroid hormones and this data would hopefully feed into the management of those populations and the conservation efforts to optimise the breeding of those species in the wild."
What did a typical day as an Endocrinology Industrial Placement Student looked like?
“My day-to-day activities were a mixture of doing routine Chester Zoo tasks and working on my research project. I would extract the faecal samples that had been collected during the month from various species across the zoo and extract them. The next day I would come back and finish the extraction process and once samples had been run on an assay, I would look at the hormone profile to see if the individual was cycling or if it was pregnant.”
What was the biggest challenge you encountered during your research?
“My project ended up being a bit more difficult than I had first anticipated! We ran into all these problems with the recoveries being very low so it took a lot longer than we first thought. Also, what I was working on is a very understudied area. Not many people work with hormones in animals, let alone with thyroid hormones, so it was a very niche project.”
What are you taking away from your year at Chester Zoo?
“I have learned so much, particularly in terms of lab and research skills! I had quite a lot of freedom to design my experiments and adjust them and so I had to really think about what I was doing.
"I have learned to look at the research available and critically analyse it. I will have to work on my final year project next year once I’m back at university so all of those skills will be really useful as they are very transferable.”
What is your best memory from this year at Chester Zoo?
“Going to the BIAZA Research Conference is one of my favourite memories because it really helped me get my head around everything that I had done. It was really useful to have to think of the most logical way to present my findings and I got to talk about my research to a whole group of zoo practitioners.
"Overall, it’s definitely been different being in a zoo environment. I don’t know many people who can say that they spend an hour and a half watching giraffes pooing on a weekly basis!”