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We Are Knox...

Kelly Wiggen '11

Veterinary School Student

University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine

Biology Major

by Rana Tahir '13

When Kelly Wiggen '11 decided as a Knox College sophomore that she would apply to veterinary school, she initially worried about whether she had enough experience dealing with animals. But that turned out to be no problem at all, thanks largely to her College Honors research.

"I got literally hundreds of hours of animal experience by working with zebra finches," said Wiggen. "It was nice to be able to put on my (vet school) application that I'm not only doing research, which is a big plus, but I'm also getting animal experience."

Now a student at the University of Illinois College of Veterinary Medicine, Wiggen plans to become a veterinarian and perhaps operate her own clinic someday.

"I love the idea of being an eventual practice owner, where I treat small animals -- cats and dogs. But I've also gotten involved in exotics and wildlife while I've been here," she said. "I'm toying with the idea of eventually specializing, but I still want to experience more of the veterinary world before I make a decision."

Wiggen said her Knox education has prepared her well for the rigors of veterinary school.

Kelly Wiggen offers spinach to zebra finches"For the past six weeks, I've been doing clinical rotations throughout the hospital, instead of being in a lecture hall all day," she said. "We've had to think on our feet, use our existing knowledge to assess a novel situation, and analyze the effects that our decisions would have, which are all things that Knox emphasizes in its education and helps students to learn throughout their four years there."

Wiggin appreciates the opportunity she had at Knox to do research and to choose her own project, an opportunity she's not sure she could have had at another school. "I got to figure out how to design an experiment with all my bases covered. I learned how to control for variables that I wasn't initially expecting."

Under the supervision of Knox College Associate Professor of Biology Jennifer Templeton, Wiggen analyzed how domesticated zebra finches react to different types of predators.

"I got to experience general frustration with research," Wiggen added, laughing. "Animals are very unpredictable and tend to be uncooperative, which was frustrating, but was a great learning experience. Just because I planned to start trials on Tuesday didn't mean the birds were actually going to want to start trials on Tuesday. I had to learn to be flexible with my subjects and adjust as I went."

For her research, Wiggen set up four experimental groups of domesticated zebra finches and analyzed their behavior after they were exposed to a snake model under different audio conditions, such as an alarm call recorded from wild zebra finches (indicating danger) and background noise of insects and wind.

Kelly Wiggen with zebra finchesTo her surprise, Wiggen found that domesticated zebra finches have either lost the ability to recognize alarm calls or the ability can only be gained in the wild.

Wiggen created a poster about the research. She and Templeton presented it in July 2011 at a joint meeting of the International Ethological Congress and the Animal Behavior Society in Bloomington, Indiana.

Wiggen's other Knox activities included singing in the Knox College Choir and the Chamber Singers, serving on the Choir Board, and working as a teaching assistant for several chemistry and biology classes. She also job-shadowed at a veterinary clinic in Galesburg.

Choosing Knox "was a fantastic decision," she said. "I think it really helped me develop as a person. I met people I'm going to be in touch with for the rest of my life -- both students and professors. I just don't think you can get that at other schools."