Dartmoor Zoo provides new home for animal research

It might just be the “quirkiest” building in the University’s increasingly diverse estates portfolio: a 35m2, wood-built facility, with not a right angle in sight, and situated next door to a pen of Iberian wolves.  What the Dartmoor Institute of Animal Science (DIAS) Pod lacks in scale, however, it more than makes up for in location and potential.

For it is in the heart of Dartmoor Zoo, in the company of wolves, that Plymouth students can now base themselves for their studies and research.

“Dartmoor Zoo is a living laboratory for the University and really helps to connect our students to the reality of working with and studying animals,” says Professor Kevin Jones, Dean of the Faculty of Science and Engineering. “We’ve built up a very close partnership with Dartmoor Zoo, and this new facility really is symbolic of that relationship.”

Students from across the academic spectrum come to the zoo on placement and for academic research and dissertations. From Health, there are psychology students looking at both animal and human wellbeing; in Arts, there are students using the zoo for life drawing; and of course, across Science, there are students on a range of degrees, including those specialising in animal behaviour and welfare, biological sciences and conservation biology, and postgraduates studying zoo conservation.

Until recently, those students had to decamp to the restaurant if they wanted to work under cover, but the DIAS Pod provides them with a permanent base complete with desk space, Wi-Fi and warmth in the winter. And the location brings added responsibility: having to interact with the public.

“They are human exhibits!” says Dartmoor Zoo CEO, Benjamin Mee, with a beaming smile. “We want visitors to the zoo to come in and see what they’re doing and to talk to them about their work. It’s part of the deal; we want to advertise science as a career choice, and this is a great way of communicating to young people that you can get a job in science right here in Plymouth.”

The Dartmoor Institute of Animal Science (DIAS) Pod

The DIAS pod certainly facilitates the research agenda that Benjamin has been so keen to support since he took over the zoo. And the responsibility of coordinating that work falls to University graduate Adam Cook, who heads the Dartmoor Institute of Animal Science, and is also an Associate Lecturer at Plymouth.

“The most attractive thing for students is our open door policy,” Adam says. “I have a list of research projects that they can pick up and do, or they can come up with their own ideas. Those projects will involve every type of animal in the zoo, and might range from studying genetic material to looking at moral and ethical issues. And hopefully the interdisciplinary mix of students using the pod will lead to new projects and collaborations.”

There will be 27 students based in Dartmoor Zoo next year, and one of the topics of interest will be the impact the pod has upon the wellbeing of the users themselves.

“We’ve had a lot of people say the experience of being in the building is very soothing,” says Adam. “And we want to draw members of the public in to talk to the students, who in turn will benefit from communicating their science.”

“It really is an unusual and quirky building,” adds Kevin. “But I am really looking forward to seeing what comes out of it; what unexpected, emergent benefits it will have for our students and our partnership.”

Careers with zoo conservation biology

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