Helen Solecki recently joined the team at the Nutrient Management Spear Program (NMSP) as a research technician, working with Quirine Ketterings. Prior to coming to Cornell, Solecki graduated from Carnegie Mellon University with a BS in neuroscience and then worked with the Wildlife Conservation Society (WCS) as a wild animal keeper specializing in ornithology. We sat down with Solecki to find out how her experience with zoology guided her to becoming a research associate at the NMSP.
Q: What was your role at the Bronx Zoo?
I was a zookeeper in the Department of Ornithology. It was a very challenging and rewarding experience. During my years there I worked with a huge range of taxa. I often worked in the “brooder” areas, which included attending to artificial incubation and baby bird development. I was also involved in all husbandry or maintenance needs in avian areas.
Q: What were the best and worst parts of working at the Bronx Zoo?
Anyone who works in animal care knows how hard it can be when an animal gets sick or passes away—especially if you have developed a strong connection to that animal. This was, by far, the hardest part, but it also made the job all the more rewarding when you got the opportunity to see an animal thriving or to be a part of the birth of a new life. I loved, overall, the range of experiences and skills I was exposed to in this line of work and the practical knowledge I gained.
Q: How did the skills you gained working at the Bronx Zoo facilitate your transition to research at Cornell?
In my last job, a lot of communication was necessary to get across animal or area needs to other team members; those skills have absolutely been facilitating my transition to being on the research team here at Cornell. Attention to detail in terms of record-keeping and equipment maintenance is also an experience that has helped my transition to my new role. In my last job, small changes could have a major impact on success. In my current role, I am finding it important to stay on my toes in the same way by closely monitoring day-to-day needs and also keeping up on reading new material.
Q: You were previously the treasurer of the American Association of Zoo Keepers (AAZK) chapter in New York City. What did this role mean to you?
The AAZK was one of the first professional organizations I became a part of, and I remember feeling very welcomed by the community. AAZK has chapters across the country, with a focus on fundraising for conservation projects and professional development. It is important to me that people have a chance to see the tangible results of their efforts, and I loved bringing people together and helping newer staff feel welcomed and included because I remember how good it felt for me. I hope wherever I go, I can continue to be a part of a positive environment like the one AAZK helped to facilitate.
Q: What does a typical day of research look like for you?
My research focuses on improving the nutrient management of dairy production systems and sustainability in agriculture as a whole. Lately this has involved meeting up with team members early in the morning and heading out to one of our field sites where we sample certain zones in the field for greenhouse gas emissions. In addition, the recent harvest season has involved a lot of field work, including cutting samples of corn stalks and leaves for silage quality testing and nitrogen content. After field work, we’ll return to the lab to start processing samples.
Q: What are you most looking forward to now that you're working at Cornell?
I am excited to be a part of the step-by-step research process, which will unfold throughout the year. I started this job just before planting began, so it will be fun to start to look at all the data we've collected and eventually compare our emission and soil results to yield data once the harvest season is over. I definitely feel like I am a part of something big!
I am excited to be a part of the step-by-step research process, which will unfold throughout the year. . . I definitely feel like I am a part of something big!
Q: What advice do you have for students interested in zoology?
If you are interested in working with exotic animals, have an open mind about internships and other opportunities! Some people have certain taxa they already know they want to work with, but sometimes getting to work with another species can provide great learning experience and you may discover other paths you want to explore. I met people who came into the zoo field loving hoofstock but discovered an interest in birds, or who were pre-vet in college but discovered zoo-keeping as a career path (and vice versa). Overall, you never know what you might learn along the way on your journey, who you will learn from or where you will find inspiration.
Tyler Collinson ’25 is an animal science major and student writer for the Cornell CALS Department of Animal Science.
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