Fairfield University's RIZE Student Research at Beardsley Zoo Earns Top Honors In Education Award

Fairfield Student Research at Beardsley Zoo Earns Top Honors In Education Award

Students gathering wolf data.

RIZE students Josue De Los Santos '23 and Chris Adornato '25 (l-r) collecting observational data from a newly introduced pair of red wolves at the Beardsley Zoo.

The University's RIZE program, led by College of Arts and Sciences Biology Professor Ashley Byun, PhD, in partnership with Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, was recognized for outstanding achievement.

Fairfield University's RIZE program (Research, Internships, and Zoo Education) was awarded top honors in education from the Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA)’s annual national conference, held this month in Columbus, Ohio. The annual award was given to the the University's RIZE program, which is a partnership with Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, recognizing outstanding achievement and the ability to promote conservation knowledge, show innovation, and measure success.

The RIZE program was developed with Fairfield's Associate Biology Professor Ashley Byun, PhD, and Fairfield University vertebrate zoology lab students to conduct behavioral observation studies at the Zoo. Each spring semester since 2013 (with a one-year interruption due to the pandemic), vertebrate biology lab students have gathered at the Zoo each Tuesday to conduct observation studies on a variety of species. Additional long-term studies are also conducted.

This year, lab students observed the white naped crane pair’s courtship and mating rituals; a new female red wolf‘s introduction to the Zoo’s male inhabitant; big cat vocalizations as indicators of estrus, part of a larger project focused on reconstructing the ancestral vocalizations of big cats; and identifying causes of trout aggression in fingerlings prior to their release in wild waterways. An ongoing study of the Zoo’s spider monkey troop includes introducing an iPad to the animals as source of cognitive enrichment - a first for New World monkeys.

“The Association of Zoos and Aquariums (AZA) International Conference attracts scholar-practitioners from across the globe. Fairfield University students have had their research accepted, through a peer-review process, every year for the past eight years," said Melissa Quan, EdD, Fairfield's director of the Center for Social Impact. "Among professionals and mostly doctoral level researchers, the Fairfield students stand out as the only undergraduates presenting original research. Moreover, the students’ research has made important contributions to Connecticut’s Beardsley Zoo, from helping discover the cause of infertility in an endangered amur tiger to helping resolve conflict between animals to improve their success in cohabitation. The RIZE partnership, founded by Dr. Ashley Byun, Animal Curator Rob Tomas and Education Curator Jim Knox, and supported by Fairfield’s Center for Social Impact and the Biology Department, creates invaluable, skill-building opportunities for our students and impactful research to help the Zoo advance their conservation mission.” 

Beardsley Zoo Education Curator Jim Knox emphasizes that the RIZE program offers insights into animal behavior that can create a better environment for saving endangered species. “Every species has its own complex life and social structure,” Knox explained. “The RIZE program and Dr. Byun give us the ability to understand more, so we can do more to preserve the delicate balance that exists in nature.”

Even after a decade of research, Dr. Byun is still inspired by her work with students and creatures at the Zoo.

“The quality of research that our students do in such a short period of time is truly impressive. Not only has their work helped the zoo with their endangered wildlife breeding programs, it’s helped to inform aspects of animal enrichment and even animal care,” said Dr. Byun. “Even though we’ve been running this program for almost 10 years, it never gets old — the animals always continue to surprise and amaze us.”

Prior studies helped to ease conflict in the prairie dog colony with the discovery that the colony had fractured into two competing coteries. In another study, when Zoo staff noticed that the female anteater exhibited anxiety when exposed to sounds from lawn maintenance equipment, a RIZE research student found similarities in the acoustics to that of a baby anteater, a sound female anteaters would naturally be attuned to.

To learn more, visit Fairfield University's RIZE program.

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