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Armadillos provide research subject for future veterinarian

June 12, 2015
By cnp
Posted in Biology

Before coming to University of the Ozarks, Sheridan Barajas knew very little about the academic research process. She knew even less about armadillos.

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Senior biology major Sheridan Barajas operated on several armadillos as part of a research project she is working on with Professor Frank Knight.

Now the senior biology major from Alvin, Texas, is well versed in both subjects after working extensively over the past 10 month on an armadillo research project with one her professors, Dr. Frank Knight, professor of biology and one of the region’s leading scholars on the mammal.  

The research focuses on the environmental influence on the Hox genes, a group of genes that controls the embryonic body plan from head-to-tail. This can be observed by recording the internal body temperatures of the armadillos during gestation and then counting the number of vertebrates the offspring have.

"Dr. Knight discussed the research topic with me at the beginning of the fall semester and invited me to work on the research with him," said Barajas, who is on the pre-veterinarian tract at Ozarks. "It was an opportunity to be a part of important research and to work with a fascinating animal that I have never worked with before. It was something I couldn’t pass up."

Barajas has been intricately involved in every aspect of the project, from going out in the middle of the night to capture armadillos, to doing the surgery to implement thermometers, to feeding and caring for the offspring.

"We specifically looked for six females and took a chance on them already being pregnant," she said. "After each capture, the armadillo was bathed and operated on. Each operation involved administering anesthesia, making a small incision, securing a small thermometer to the abdominal wall, and closing the incision. There were six total operations. Dr. Neal Jones, DVM, performed the first operation, I performed the second one under his supervision, and I performed the last four with Dr. Knight supervising me."

Three of the armadillos had offspring, providing prime subjects for Barajas and Dr. Knight to study.

"Each armadillo gives birth to identical quadruplets which is why they are perfect research subjects," Barajas. "With the help of a local dentist, Dr. James Cook, we were able to get 3-D cat scans of the babies and those images will allow us to count the number of vertebrates. If there is an inconsistency, then we will refer to the mother’s temperature recordings and proceed to reach a conclusion about the Hox genes."

Barajas will spend most of June collecting and analyzing the data and the rest of the summer working on developing her academic journal. She hopes to present her findings at academic conferences during her senior year.

"This is an incredible opportunity to do real-world research and to present the findings, something not many undergraduates get to do," Barajas said. "Having my name on a possibly published research article would mean that the months of hard work and stress would have finally paid off and it is something that I can be very proud of. "

Working alongside her professor has been an enlightening experience for Barajas.

"Throughout this study, it has been a little difficult understanding the subjects’ behavior since this is my first time working with the nine-banded armadillo," Barajas said. "I have learned that in order to truly understand my subjects, I would need to continue to ask questions. Dr. Knight has been right next to me throughout this research teaching me new things about husbandry and behavior. Overall, I have learned that as a scientist you should always strive to learn more about what you’re passionate about."

Barajas said she attended Ozarks because of the university’s reputation for success in placing students in professional schools.

"I knew Ozarks could help me achieve my career goals and I believe it’s doing exactly that," she said. "All of my professors have pushed me to become the best student I can be. They have also helped make this place feel more like a home by caring about me outside of the classroom, too. It is easy to say that there is such thing as an Ozarks family that includes students, staff, and faculty."

After graduation next spring, Barajas plans to attend veterinarian school and achieve her life-long dream of becoming a small animal veterinarian.

"Knowing that I can bring happiness to families by providing health care to their pets is going to be the biggest reward of all," she said.