Senior Gwendolyne Fields Explores Conservation in Virginia and Namibia

Gwen Fields

Gwendolyne Fields’ life has been defined by a connection to natural landscapes across the world. Growing up outside of the U.S., Fields developed an awareness of how global issues like climate change impacted environmental degradation and species decline in multiple countries. With these experiences fresh in her mind, Fields joined the Honors College at George Mason University interested in learning more about addressing these changes through conservation. 

Her journey began in Honors 110: Principles of Research and Inquiry, a first-semester requirement in the Honors College designed to introduce students to scholarly research at the college level. Through the course, Fields’ interest in conservation blossomed as she investigated the anthropogenic and environmental factors of Cross-River Gorilla population decline. Working on this project gave Fields a sense of empowerment: “it made me feel like I could help fight against these threats a population faces or increase the population of endangered species.” Research became a potential avenue for positive action. 

During her first year, Fields also toured and received an invitation to be a scholar at SMSC at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation (SMSC), an opportunity coinciding with her growing commitment to supporting endangered species. Eager to dive further into conservation, she dedicated her Spring 2022 to studying at SMSC, specifically enrolling in the Endangered Species Program. There, Fields connected with various Smithsonian Institute professionals and attending their lectures, as well as researched at Smithsonian’s National Zoo and secured a nine-month internship lined up for this academic year. Fields also learned how to develop a conservation management plan for endangered species. 

While employing her prior research skills to this project, she noted the challenge practitioners encounter considering the little existing research on particular species’ populations. This observation motivated her conservation pursuits during this past summer. Through a travel grant awarded by the Office of Student Scholarship, Creative Activities, and Research (OSCAR), Fields travelled to Namibia to work with the Cheetah Conservation Fund (CCF), an organization that aims to promote conservation, research, and local economic development. As a Cheetah Husbandry Intern, Fields ensured cheetah wellbeing through maintenance of cheetah enclosures, administering medicine, and regular feeding of [meat] sourced from local farmers. During her off-time, Fields worked on a research project mentored by Dr. David Luther and funded by OSCAR’s Undergraduate Research Scholars Program. Fields compared the growth rates of 65 cheetah cubs aged 0-6 months in Somaliland and Namibia, using preliminary data collected by CCF to investigate the factors contributing to observed differences.  

The opportunity to practice and research about conservation at once was a key experience for Fields. “There's a lot of questions that we can ask, which is why research is also really beautiful. You can be creative and figure out ways to share your findings, demonstrate what needs to be done with scientists and the community as a whole.” 

Looking forward, Fields is excited to continue her research with CCF and ultimately publish their findings. Thanks to her time at SMSC, she has an internship lined up for her senior year at Smithsonian’s National Zoo as an Elephant Trails Intern. These opportunities, she emphasizes, were possible by stepping outside of her comfort zone: “Encourage yourself to do things that you might not think that you'd be interested in, or you might be scared to try. Still, go out there keep asking questions.”