Reagan Jennings ’23 poses with harbor seal Hillie above her and a toy seal from the gift shop during her research experience at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. (Photo courtesy of Reagan Jennings)

Sealing Her Future

Ohio Wesleyan Student Completes Research at Columbus Zoo, Plans to Attend Veterinary School

By Cole Hatcher

Reagan Jennings ’23

Name: Reagan Jennings ’23
Hometown: Everett, Washington
Majors: Pre-Professional Zoology and Biology
Minors: Environmental Science and Chemistry
OWU Connection Experience: Independent Research at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium

Reagan Jennings ’23 is spending the semester researching the social behavior of harbor seals at the Columbus Zoo and comparing their behaviors with behaviors documented in the wild by a team of divers from Washington State. The diving crew, called “The SpongeBob Crew,” and a few other independent divers have been monitoring harbor seal encounters in the Puget Sound.

Jennings is being mentored at Ohio Wesleyan by Shala Hankison, Ph.D., associate professor of Zoology and a 1995 OWU alumna. At the zoo, Jennings is being supervised by Shane Gorbett ’15, now part of the zoo’s pinniped team (seals, sea lions, and walruses). At Ohio Wesleyan, Gorbett was a Pre-Professional Zoology and Spanish double major. Jennings earned an OWU Connection small grant to support her experience.

What I Hope to Learn

“I am really trying to see if the social behavior of harbor seals is the same in captivity as in the wild,” Jennings said. “Are they social in the wild? Do they interact with people like they do in captivity? Are they mostly found alone or do they travel in groups?

“So far I have determined that harbor seals are just as fascinated by humans in the wild as they are in captivity. I have also found them to be solitary creatures as we have not had one sighting of a pair of free harbor seals since this research began. Both the seals in captivity and the seals in the wild seem to be exhibiting the same behaviors, which tells me that the Columbus Zoo is doing a good job of enriching and caring for the animals.”

Reagan Jennings ’23 is studying the behavior of harbor seals at the Columbus Zoo and Aquarium. (Photo courtesy of Reagan Jennings)

My Favorite Moment (So Far)

“My favorite memory was my first visit at Adventure Cove. I had never even visited the Columbus Zoo before working with Dr. Hankison on this research so it was a whole new world to me. I went into Adventure Cove, and I was captivated by the 360-degree viewing tunnel and the way the harbor seals soared through the water.

“As I was standing there, a little girl ran up beside me with her mom and pointed in awe as these amazing animals swam upside down and all around. I looked at her and the smile on her face, and I remembered being young and having that same love for animals. The same love that led me to college and, I hope, to veterinary school 18+ years later.”

Lessons Learned

“Throughout my research, I have been able to tie back so many observations to lectures learned in my evolution class (ZOOL 261). Just by observing the animal, you can see how the species has evolved over time to best fit its intended environment.

“I think it is so cool the way we can reflect classroom learning to the real world. I also know that this research will be great for my future endeavors, not only for what I learned but for the connections I am making by going to the zoo constantly, talking to the staff and volunteers, and, of course, working with Shane.”

My Mentors

“Dr. Hankison has been working on this with me and, even though I was only a sophomore, she let me know of this opportunity that usually only seniors get. She has helped me by answering my constant questions, improving my scientific writing skills, and keeping me motivated along the way. She is truly a hidden gem at OWU and an amazing professor and person.

“And Shane is so passionate about the animals. He has been amazing and knows so much about the harbor seals. I think we talked for two hours one day just about how incredible they are. He actually helped me pick my research question and gave me some helpful tips on how to get into his field. He is definitely a role model for me, and I hope one day to be in his position helping out fellow OWU students, too!”

Why I Chose Ohio Wesleyan

“OWU really stood out to me for not only the beauty of the campus and the rigor of the programs but also the many opportunities for scholarships. Being a first-generation college student, I knew that the odds weren’t in my favor when it came to going to college. I had the drive, the grades, but not the money, so I applied to every scholarship available from OWU.

“The day I got my acceptance letter, I was so grateful to also find that I had received an institutional grant as well as the Branch Rickey Scholarship. Even with these, it did not feel possible for me to go to OWU. The next day I got a call from my admissions counselor wanting to discuss my choice, and I explained my strife to her.

“She let me know that there was one more scholarship I could apply for, one that would cover the remainder of the money I would owe. I applied and found out two weeks later I had won. I remember the exact moment I got that call, and in that moment, I realized I was never just a number to OWU, but I was an investment.

“People I did not even know saw potential in me before I could ever prove that to them. The people here want to give you opportunities and set you up for success. This is evident in people like Dr. Hankison. OWU truly wants students to succeed and change the world, and if there are any obstacles in the way, the faculty and staff will find a way to help you overcome those.”

My Plans After Graduation

“Graduation is still a little bit away, but I plan on applying for veterinary school in both Ohio and Oregon. Until then, I am going to continue to work hard and take every opportunity provided to me by OWU. In the coming two years, I am hoping to complete more internships, lab research with faculty, and complete a Theory-to-Practice Grant abroad.”