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The first in a legacy of many

Fisheries and wildlife sciences alumna Erin Mathias is pictured standing to the left of a rhinoceros at the Oregon Zoo. Erin is smiling and resting one hand on the rhino's snout. She wears a gray and orange Oregon State zip-up jacket.

Erin Mathias, pictured above with Zuri the rhinoceros during a behind the scenes experience at the Oregon Zoo, says she enrolled in the Ecampus fisheries, wildlife, and conservation sciences program to take a step closer to her lifelong dream of becoming a zookeeper.

By Julie Cooper
March 29, 2018

The past does not dictate the possibilities for one’s future. Erin Mathias knows this firsthand.

She wasn’t fond of scientific subjects in her early years of education, and a lack of representation of African American women in the STEM fields – science, technology, engineering and mathematics – made it difficult for Erin to envision herself in one.

But with her lifelong goal on the line, she pushed aside her doubts and enrolled online in the Oregon State University Ecampus fisheries, wildlife, and conservation sciences program while working part time in Portland, Oregon. It was a substantial step toward the life she desired.

Since childhood, Erin has dreamed of becoming a zookeeper and working with captive animals.

“I played ‘zoo’ when other kids played ‘house,’ ” she says. “The older I got, the stronger the desire became to make this goal a reality.”

Erin wears a bright red sweatshirt and smiles facing the camera. She holds her left arm up to the black chain link fence behind her, where Bakari the giraffe bends his neck down to eat from her hand.

“I want to work with captive animals because those are the ones being constantly overlooked,” says Erin.

Through her Oregon State online classes, she finally found a sense of belonging and confidence as a scientific learner.

Erin’s attentive instructors made sure no student was left behind in class discussions, and when she struggled to see the finish line ahead, her academic advisor, Susie Dunham, provided mentorship and the motivation to keep moving forward.

“Even though I had my dream, I never thought it would happen,” she says. “I’m grateful I didn’t let my previous bad experiences with math and science hold me back. Now I’m the one with all the cool animal facts, puns and corny science jokes.” (Well-informed jokes are an often-overlooked advantage of an Oregon State education.)

Last spring, Erin earned her degree in fisheries and wildlife sciences with a specialty in captive large mammal daily care and conservation.

Her skills and education recently helped her land a position as a laboratory animal tech at the Oregon National Primate Research Center near Portland, one of seven federally funded primate research centers in the United States.

There, she feeds, provides enrichment for and maintains the enclosures of rhesus macaques, one of the best-known species of Old World monkeys. She’s gaining valuable experience caring for animals and making strides toward her zookeeping career.

Though she was the first in her family to earn a degree, she’s determined she won’t be the last.

Erin hopes her successes will set an example for her younger siblings and African American girls who want to enter STEM fields.

“Growing up, I didn’t have role models in the science community and I didn’t think it was something I could ever do. I decided I need to change that,” she says. “I want to share my story in the hopes that it inspires kids to follow their dreams.”

Already a role model to many children in her family and community, Erin looks forward to one day interacting with all the curious children who visit the zoo and cultivating the next generation of conservationists.

Julie Cooper is a student marketing writer for Oregon State Ecampus.

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