As an aspiring veterinarian, Stephanie Beeson knows she is going to have to answer questions related to animal behavior on a regular basis.

“It doesn’t matter whether you’re working with dogs, cats, cattle, lab animals or zoo animals, the subject is going to come up,” said Beeson, a 2007 Southwestern graduate who is now enrolled at the Texas A&M University School of Veterinary Medicine.

Fortunately for Beeson, she is going to be well prepared to handle such questions. Beeson is among the students who have earned degrees in animal behavior at Southwestern − a relatively rare program the school has offered since 1991.

“I came to Southwestern specifically to major in animal behavior,” Beeson said. “Most schools have biology, psychology or animal science, which might have behavior in there somewhere, but very few schools have undergraduate degrees in animal behavior. I wanted something different from what I could get in the biology programs at other schools, so when I saw Southwestern had a behavior major I decided that would be perfect.”

Beeson said animal behavior is a specialty in veterinary medicine and she would eventually like to do a residency and get board certified as a veterinary behaviorist.

While some students who graduate from Southwestern’s Animal Behavior Program plan to work with animals, some take what they learn from working with animals and apply it to humans.

Katy (Siciliano) Goldey, who received the Animal Behavior Program Award for Excellence in 2008, is now working on her Ph.D. in biopsychology at the University of Michigan and is part of a team that is researching the effects of sexual thoughts on testosterone and cortisol.

“When I started college I was thinking about possibly working at a zoo, but ended up realizing I really liked research, and especially teaching others about research,” Goldey said.

Jessica Bolton, who received the Animal Behavior Program Award for Excellence in 2010, is working on her Ph.D. in psychology and neuroscience at Duke University. Bolton said she did not come to Southwestern specifically for the Animal Behavior Program, but it was an added bonus.

“I wasn’t completely sure of what I wanted to major in when I arrived,” Bolton said. “I think the Animal Behavior Program prepared me very well for graduate school, especially in neuroscience, because I basically received a double major in psychology and biology, which is what neuroscience is. I took very relevant courses from interdisciplinary areas, like Psychology Research Methods and Behavioral Neuroscience, Cellular and Molecular Biology Research Methods, and Medicinal Chemistry in addition to more narrow Neuroanatomy classes when I was studying abroad at the University of Sussex in England. All of these and more helped me to learn to think and write critically like a scientist, which definitely prepared me for graduate school.”

As undergraduates at Southwestern, Beeson, Goldey and Bolton all worked in the lab of Fay Guarraci, an associate professor of psychology who currently serves as co-chair of the Animal Behavior Program. Guarraci said a required research experience is an important aspect of the program.

“We think that what serves students best is having experiences working with animals,” Guarraci said. “In addition, because animal behavior is the scientific study of animals the students need to understand how and why you study animals. The best way to learn that is to actually do the studying yourself.”

Other Southwestern faculty members who are involved with the Animal Behavior Program include Jesse Purdy, professor of psychology; Romi Burks, associate professor of biology; and Ben Pierce, professor of biology. Steve Shapiro, who serves as chief of the Section of Behavioral Care and Enrichment at M.D. Anderson Cancer Center’s Veterinary Sciences Division in Bastrop, Texas, also has been involved with the program since 1996. Shapiro is one of the world’s leading experts on animal behavior and the M.D. Anderson facility, which is formally known as the Michale E. Keeling Center for Comparative Medicine and Research, is one of only a handful of places in the country that conducts research on primates.

Guarraci personally works with about four students a year in her neuroscience research laboratory, which focuses on studying animals as model systems for understanding biological processes. Her topics of interest include drug addiction, motivation, reproduction and mental illness.

“In a nutshell, we study the brain and how it influences animals’ behavior,” Guarraci says. “In laboratory sciences − in biomedical research, for example − rodents tend to be very common models for diseases or physiology… how the system works. Throughout each experiment, the question that we strive to ask is, ‘What can we learn about human conditions from studying an animal model?’”

Delia Shelton, who received the Animal Behavior Program Award for Excellence in 2009, said the mice and fish models she is currently working on in graduate school closely parallel the study subjects she worked with at Southwestern under the direction of Guarraci and Purdy. Shelton is now working on a dual Ph.D. in psychological and brain science and evolution ecology and behavior at Indiana University with a minor in cognitive science.

“When I applied to Southwestern I didn’t realize I had stumbled upon a gem,” Shelton said. “The Animal Behavior Program gave me transferable skills and foundation grounded in fundamental concepts in animal behavior that I continue to rely on today.”

Shelton said the professors and the training she received at Southwestern also enabled her to attend graduate school fully funded on three different fellowships, one of which was a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. Her goal is to become a professor at a top-tier research university.

“I want to push the edge of science and make contributions that revolutionize the way people think about science,” she said.

Goldey and Bolton said their experiences at Southwestern also helped them land NSF Graduate Research Fellowships.

“I gained extensive research experience and learned how to carry out a project from start to finish as well as work together with a research team of faculty and students,” Goldey said. “I wrote a lot about my experiences at Southwestern in my NSF application. The fact that I’d had the opportunity to present my research from Southwestern at conferences was also a huge help in getting the NSF grant − all of my application reviewers mentioned this in their comments.”

Goldey said she has asked her Southwestern professors for lots of advice during graduate school, including advice on the NSF application and advice on her dissertation topic. She hopes to become a professor at a liberal arts college.

“I want to work somewhere that allows for the type of in-depth interactions between students and faculty that Southwestern does,” she said.

Bolton also wants to become a professor and researcher, but is still undecided on whether she wants to work at a small liberal arts school like Southwestern or a larger research university like Duke. “Either way, I aspire to be like Dr. Guarraci and hopefully instill in my students a love for science and research, as well as a passion for lifelong learning,” she said.  

(Georgetown writer Rachel Brownlow contributed to this story)