When Joy Flowers first transferred to Virginia Tech as a wildlife conservation major, she envisioned a career as a park ranger. However, through diversifying her hands-on learning experiences as an Honors student, Flowers discovered her passion for wildlife disease and how it affects evolutionary and physiological processes. Flowers graduated in Fall 2021 with a double major in wildlife conservation and biological sciences.

“The Honors College has been really beneficial to me,” Flowers said. “Pursuing the Honors Laureate Diploma has helped me step outside of my normal bounds.”

The Honors Laureate Diploma highly encourages Honors students to seek research and experiential learning experiences to foster students’ curiosity and self-directed educational trajectories. While at Virginia Tech, Flowers has been a research technician for the Department of Animal and Poultry Sciences, a biological technician in Massey Herbarium, conducted field and work studies for Dr. William Hopkins’ Lab, and completed undergraduate research for Dr. Luis Escobar's lab.

“It's important for students to get involved in the research and extracurricular opportunities available on campus. While here, students have the opportunity to be a part of so many different experiences that can have so many broad impacts on the world,” Flowers said. “Working in different labs and experiencing different opportunities broadens your skill set and gives you a better idea of what you would like to pursue in the future.”

Global Geography and Ecology of Rabies Reservoirs poster
In 2019, Joy Flowers, Katherine Worsley-Tonks, Nick M. Fountain-Jones, and Dr. Luis Escobar presented research about the Global Geography and Ecology of Rabies Reservoirs.

Flowers currently cultures and studies multiple pathogens at the Alexander lab. This summer, she plans to travel to Botswana and continue her microbiological lab work at the Chobe Research Institute.

“My main duties involve various microbiological lab work with pathogens such as Campylobacter spp. and Escherichia coli.,” she explained. “Basically, I culture, or grow, them up so we can optimize growth conditions for real water, human and animal fecal, and animal tissue samples taken from Botswana.”

The goal of this research is to gain a better understanding of these bacteria to better inform animal and public health practices.

As a transfer and Honors student, Flowers additionally focused on completing a variety of Honors College Faculty-Student Agreements (FSAs) during her time at Tech. An FSA is a popular way that students earn honors credit because it allows students to turn any non-Honors course into a course for honors credit. It also offers students the opportunity to individualize their course experience and build a collegial relationship with their instructor.

Dr. Luis Escobar, an assistant professor in the College of Natural Resources and Environment, was one of the first professors with whom Flowers worked on an FSA. As a result of compiling a literature review on the interactions of Bluetongue virus and its wildlife hosts with Dr. Escobar, Flowers was inspired to focus on the field of wildlife diseases, which forever changed her trajectory. 

“Joy is an exemplary transfer student that has been taking advantage of all the academic and research opportunities available at Virginia Tech,” Dr. Escobar said.  “Joy has scientific curiosity and has demonstrated the grit needed to succeed in science. I am sure her future will be full of exciting achievements as she finds her professional path.”

In her senior year, Flowers created the blog From Wildlife to Humans: Getting to Know the Zoonotic Microbes to explore various antagonistic interactions between pathogens and animals as an FSA for her General Microbiology class.

“I tried to be creative with the types of experiences I would do associated with each Faculty-Student Agreement and what experiences would be beneficial to me as a future professional,” Flowers explained.

An entry example in Joy Flower's field journal, which documents ecological interactions she encounters at Caldwell Fields and Craig Creek in Blacksburg, Virginia.
An entry example in Joy Flower's field journal, which documents ecological interactions she encounters at Caldwell Fields and Craig Creek in Blacksburg, Virginia.

She also proposed an Ecology field journal project for one FSA, where she would explore and then draw and document different species in a field journal. Flowers  would then make iNaturalist entries about the many ecological interactions she encountered

“All of these FSA experiences were related to wildlife or, more specifically, wildlife disease. They have greatly added to my knowledge-base about this field and prepared me for a related graduate program,” Flowers said. “I am very thankful for being able to creatively come up with different Honors projects that were related to my passions.”

Flowers is now applying to graduate programs with a focus on bat disease ecology and zoonotic spillover of diseases similar to the ones that SARS-Cov-2 came from.

Written by Michelle Fleury