From a young age, Michigan State University alumna Elizabeth Donelan had a passion for animals and zoological studies, volunteering and taking courses at the Cincinnati Zoo during her youth. This passion led her to MSU, where she majored in Zoology with a focus on Neurobiology and Animal Behavior through the Lyman Briggs College.
Donelan participated in a variety of extracurricular activities during her studies. She served as the director of Science Theater – a program performing scientific demonstrations for local schools – during her senior year and worked as a volunteer at the MSU Museum.
Graduating in 2006, Donelan took a gap year following her graduation, eventually deciding to continue her education at the University of Rhode Island. She spent two field seasons studying the biodiversity on coffee farms in Costa Rica, spending the other parts of the year taking traditional graduate degree courses. Graduating in 2009 with a Master’s of Science Degree in Wildlife Biology and Conservation, she returned to Cincinnati.
Facing a challenging job market during the recession, Donelan used a variety of methods to apply for positions and find opportunities. She found leads from university job boards and biology-focused organizations, like the Wildlife Society. Though not directly related to her zoological passion, she began working in a variety of lab positions studying obesity. These opportunities exposed her to hands-on lab work and techniques, including research with wild mice.
Donelan was finally able to work directly with animals when a role opened at the Cincinnati Zoo. Currently, she works as a research associate at the zoo, working in the Center for Conservation and Research of Endangered Wildlife. Her role combines aspects of her previous positions, including lab work and animal research.
Donelan began volunteering at an early age. Along the way, she has made a variety of connections and participated in mentoring relationships. To form these relationships, Donelan highlights the importance of hard work and dedication in all of one’s professional experiences as “you don’t know when those people [mentors] are going to come.” This dedication is essential for maintaining connections and professional references.
Donelan credits Lyman Briggs College with preparing her for a career in scientific fields and fostering her dedication to scientific study. She appreciated the opportunity to take pre-requisite courses that expanded her knowledge while being grounded in her passion for science.
For her fellow STEM students interested in research, Donelan suggests interning, volunteering, and finding jobs in labs as soon as possible. In her experience, the “sooner you can get in and start learning research skills, the better.” Donelan learned that hands-on work in a lab environment is different than the experience offered through lab coursework and makes candidates more attractive during the hiring process.
Though Donelan offers specific advice for those interested in scientific fields, she suggests to all students to “just say yes,” even if the opportunities presented are not exactly what one imagined they wanted to do. Being open to an indirect path can build one’s skill-set and open opportunities for mentoring relationships and connections.