St. Louis Zoo Epidemiologist Sharon L. Deem, DVM, PhD. Protecting Wildlife Through Conservation Medicine

Contributing Writer - Kathleen Kaiser (story and photos)July 4, 2013 

Imagine a life filled with exploration, world travel, and your extensive education making a difference for not only human lives, but the lives of animal species around the world. Now imagine taking on projects with the Smithsonian Institute in Gabon, Central Africa and in the Galapagos Islands, before you decide to move your family to the Midwest to continue your work at the world-renowned St. Louis Zoo. This is the exciting life of the Director of the Institute for Conservation Medicine’s Sharon L Deem, DVM, PhD. I had the opportunity to learn about her interesting life and the project she is working on right here in Forest Park for the St. Louis Zoo:

Q: Can you share with our readers a little about yourself growing up?

A: I would love to. I grew up in both Washington D.C. and in Washington State, as my parents were divorced when I was young. Living in these two very different worlds allowed me to experience both big city life with my mother, and life on an Arabian Horse and Texas Longhorn ranch in Washington State, with my father and stepmother, Elizabeth Jane Ickes. My stepmother’s father was Harold Ickes, who served as Secretary of the Interior under Franklin D. Roosevelt for 13 years. I believe that growing up around the animals and having the opportunity to enjoy the parks and wildlife of our nation, really guided me into the studies I would later pursue.

Q: With the incredible scientific work that you do, I can only imagine the extensive education you have pursued to get to this point in your career. Do you mind sharing your accomplishments?

A: No, not at all, as I actually love learning. It’s a passion for me. If I could have stayed in school my whole life, I would have. I received my B.S. in Biology from Virginia Tech, and then proceeded to get my Doctorate of Veterinary Medicine degree from the Virginia/Maryland Regional College of Veterinary Medicine. Then I decided to continue to pursue a PhD in Veterinary Science (Epidemiology) which is the study of diseases within a population at the University of Florida. I proceeded to do my residency in Zoo & Wildlife Medicine also at the University of Florida.

Q: As you shared your travels around the world, I have to ask, how did you end up here in the Midwest at the St. Louis Zoo?

A: My three years living in the Galapagos was as the veterinary epidemiologist for the WildCare Institute’s Center for Avian Health in the Galapagos Islands which is a Zoo and UMSL collaborative effort co-directed by Drs. Eric Miller and Patricia Parker. When my contract with that project was wrapping up, Dr. Jeffrey Bonner, CEO of the Saint Louis Zoo, approached me to become the Director of the Zoo’s new Institute for Conservation Medicine. The focus of the Institute is to better understand and ensure the health of animals, humans and ecosystems in our changing world, which is what my life’s work has been about. So I relocated here to the Midwest to take on this opportunity. Surprisingly, once we were settled here, my father came to visit and shared with me a fact that I never knew. The Deem family has roots in the Alton, IL area. This must be why I feel so grounded doing my work here in the Midwest. The St. Louis Zoo has been an incredible place to carry out conservation medicine research, and my husband, Stephen Blake, is also an adjunct with the Zoo. We met in the Congo in Africa when I was working on a project there. Stephen is also a Biologist, and he is also co-leading the box turtle project here in Missouri.

Q: What type of animals are you studying here in Forest Park and why is this research so important?

A: The St. Louis Box Turtle Project was started in the Spring of 2012. We are conducting this study to address the growing threats to these animals not only in the Midwest, but throughout the United States. Conducting this study here also addresses two other key factors: 1) the increasing disconnect of our young people and the outdoors, and 2) the incredible opportunities that exist throughout our region to experience nature - even in the heart of St. Louis. We are studying the box turtles of Missouri at both our Forest Park location and at the Tyson Research Center. Studying these animals through radio tracking and other scientific methods helps us understand their ranging behavior, estimate the abundance or decline of a particular species, and evaluate their health status. Understanding the health of wildlife populations is an integral part of conservation of any species. These wonderful little creatures have also made the outreach component for our study easier. Who doesn’t love a turtle? This project has also allowed us to increase our outreach to younger people around the world. By consolidating links with students in St. Louis with the younger populations in the Galapagos Islands, through a common interest in turtles that span small box turtles in Missouri to the iconic giant tortoises of Galapagos, thus connecting sister projects and North and South America conservation efforts. For more information about Dr. Sharon Deem, the Institute for Conservation Medicine at the St. Louis Zoo, or the St. Louis Box Turtle project - please visit stlouiszoo.com.

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