Outdoors: Young biologist sees future helping endangered species

Originally published in The Toledo Blade – December 9, 2019

As the second-graders at St. Joseph School in Maumee rattled off what they wanted to be when they were adults, the list had to include those perennial favorites — a fireman, an astronaut, a police officer, a pro athlete, a cowboy or even SpongeBob’s sidekick.

But when the question was put to Gabrielle Dennis, the then 7-year-old had something different in mind. Something deeper. Something that did not have its origin in those regular childhood fantasies.

“In second grade, I had been reading a lot of animal books, and I think that’s when I knew that I wanted to do something with my life that helped out animals,” the now 16-year-old said. “A little bit later, I decided I wanted to be a wildlife biologist and researcher, but as far back as I can remember, I knew I wanted to spend my career working with animals.”

A junior and an honor student at Ohio Virtual Academy, Dennis appears to be on track to do just that, and likely much, much more. Her teachers and the folks she works with as a volunteer at Nature’s Nursery and at the Toledo Zoo see no ceiling for this mature, energetic, motivated, amiable, and exceptionally bright young woman.

“She is so well-spoken and so focused — you just don’t see that level of interest and ambition in someone her age,” said Nicole Frederick, volunteer coordinator at Nature’s Nursery, a wildlife rehabilitation and education center in Whitehouse. “In the future — whatever that girl wants is what she will be doing. I see her flying through the ranks and definitely doing big things.”

Gabrielle’s mother, Rose, started enrolling her daughter in summer camps at the zoo at age 8. As soon as Gabby reached 13, the minimum age for being part of the ZooTeens program, she jumped in and got involved in as many education and conservation projects as possible. She has accumulated nearly 800 volunteer hours overall and won the prestigious President’s Volunteer Service Award three times.

“I spend as much time as I can doing volunteer work at the zoo and at Nature’s Nursery because it is something I really enjoy, and something that helps out at both places,” she said. “I like to work with the animals — any animals, really — like lizards and snakes and things that most people don’t want to handle.”

Gabrielle and her mother visited Nature’s Nursery before Gabby was old enough to work as a volunteer, but after she turned 16 this past summer, she was able to join the volunteer-driven efforts of that non-profit entity.

“Right now, I can work on the weekends and help with feeding the animals, cleaning the cages and all, and it is something I really enjoy, even though it’s not necessarily something that most people would want to do,” she said. “I find that it’s really rewarding to help these injured animals that can’t help themselves.”

She works primarily with the facility’s education animals — the ones that are taken off-site for programs at schools — but her role will involve more responsibilities in the very near future.

“Gabby does the feeding, charting and other things involved in the daily care of the animals, and she is very conscientious about everything she does,” Frederick said. “She is young, but so mature for her age, so she’ll start handling animals soon. She’s taking all of the concrete steps to advance in her studies and in her involvement here.”

Dennis has completed internship and enrichment programs in southern Ohio and in the Big Sur region of California, and earlier this year she was one of 100 teens from across the nation who were chosen to participate in the “Disney Dreamers” program in Orlando. That gathering includes a series of workshops and educational sessions designed to convert the resort and amusement park into an energized classroom for students with interests across a broad range of fields and studies.

“That was very competitive to get in, with more than 10,000 applicants for the 100 spots, so I filled out the application knowing it was a long shot, but also realizing that you miss all of the shots that you don’t take,” she said. “It was a chance to meet with mentors, learn networking skills and speaking skills, and really focus on your career interests.”

The California internship gave Dennis the opportunity to work in a camp focused on helping out the endangered California condor.

“I got to trek around in the mountains with a team of other students my age, and I honestly think it was one of the most beautiful places I’ve ever seen,” she said. “I got to do a lot of amazing research and use radio telemetry to take signals of the already tracked condors and see where they are in the park. I also got to talk with other wildlife biologists, so I feel that was very beneficial to my career goals.”

Emily Rebro is Gabrielle’s environmental science teacher at the Ohio Virtual Academy, and Rebro said a student like Dennis creates a special environment for their instructor.

“As an educator, knowing how she is just so hungry for information and so eager to learn, it is very exciting. It makes my job more fun to have someone who is that interested,” Rebro said. “It keeps me on my toes a little bit, since I know that as I’m teaching, she is going to be there ready with the next question.”

Rebro said Dennis certainly ranks in the highest percentile of students, but her interest level and enthusiasm for learning goes well beyond what takes place during class time.

“It was very quickly evident what a great student she was, from the get-go. She doesn’t hesitate to expand on ideas with her work and she always goes the extra mile or takes the extra step,” Rebro said. “She is always working on things behind the scenes and she is forward-thinking all of the time.”

Gabrielle said that the Ohio Virtual Academy format allows her more flexibility with her schedule so she can engage in volunteer work and other outside activities. She has not decided on a college choice yet but expects to continue her schooling until she has received a Ph.D. in her chosen field.

“I’m still kind of looking around at colleges and specific majors, but I would like to try to focus on endangered species. One of my goals is to help the animals that need help the most,” she said. “I’d maybe like to teach at some point, but I definitely want to do research. I’ve always wanted to go to the Galapagos Islands and maybe do research somewhere like that.”

Is that an unrealistic dream, to study on that remote volcanic archipelago out in the Pacific Ocean where Charles Darwin formulated his Theory of Natural Selection?

“When she puts her mind to accomplishing something, there is no doubt that she will achieve it,” Rebro said. “I’m excited to think where she’ll be 10 years from now.”

To learn more about Ohio Virtual Academy, visit https://ohva.k12.com/.

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