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Serendipitous science

2:06 PM  May 7th, 2013
by Audrey Starr

Gathered in an otherwise empty field 40 minutes from campus, the UD biology students circled the specimen, a pig carcass three months decomposed. Interested but hesitant, they prepared to collect the project’s necessary samples — but it was their younger counterpart, 12-year-old Josie Baudendistel, who reached one gloved hand in first.

“I’ve always known that I wanted to work with animals, but I’m not sure when I realized that counted as science. When I was in preschool, I thought of mad scientists blowing things up in a lab — it wasn’t until I was in first grade that I conducted a project on apes and realized that biology, something that just sounded fun to me, was a real science,” she said.

It’s that work ethic and inquisitive spirit that has propelled Josie, eighth grade daughter of alumnus Tommy Baudendistel ’88, into a multi-year partnership with the University. In 2011, the then-sixth grader’s research on larval growth rates produced some confusing results, and her father knew his alma mater could help.

“Knowing how friendly everyone is on campus, and that the professors love what they do and would truly want to help a student understand their field, made it easy for us to approach biology professor Eric Benbow,” Baudendistel said.

Benbow agreed to review Josie’s report; then, came an “aha” moment. “Some of what she was doing was very, very similar to what my students were already doing in the lab,” he said. “Then, she told me her goal was to work with mammals, and everything clicked. Scavenging was something we had thought about studying, but we needed resources.”

In many ways, the arrangement was serendipitous. Benbow’s land permit had just expired; Baudendistel owns a 45-acre farm with 14 acres of unused land less than an hour from Dayton. The project would need high-tech electronics, including wireless cameras and motion sensors; Baudendistel, a doctoral-level engineer, knew just how to set it up. Josie’s research depended on mammal carcasses and lab facilities to analyze samples; Benbow and his students were happy to contribute.

“My students realized, as did I, how much a young person can get done when they put their potential to work. You can do some really good science, even at a young age, if you have the focus and drive and interest,” Benbow said. Josie has been an author on three of his conference presentations.

Although she’s an experienced researcher, Josie still needed some assistance in fundraising for her current project, on how opossums might use ultraviolet and infrared light for scavenging cues, through online crowdfunding via Fundageek.com: since she fell short of the site’s age limit, her father established the account.

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