Lauren Rietkerk, student in APU's Master of Science in Biotechnology Program
Lauren Rietkerk, student in APU's Master of Science in Biotechnology Program

Answering the Conservation Call with Biotechnology

by Rebekah Bruckner

After the death of the last male northern white rhino, Sudan, scientists are pressed to discover a way to save this species from extinction. Researchers at the San Diego Zoo are at the forefront of this urgent and significant work. Lauren Rietkerk ’17, a student in Azusa Pacific’s Master of Science in Biotechnology program, hopes to align her education with her calling to help solve the world’s conservation crisis. “I have always been passionate about animal life,” said Rietkerk. She recalls that during her first visit to the zoo as a young child, she stared into the eyes of a snow leopard. “I was enthralled. The leopard’s movements were so interesting to me. At that moment I knew that one day I wanted to incorporate my love of animals into a career.”

Rietkerk, who graduated from APU with a degree in psychology, is currently enrolled in the biotechnology program, and plans to pursue a Ph.D. in Animal Behavior Science. She pairs her classroom and lab learning with work at the San Diego Zoo Safari Park giving tours to visitors and interacting with the animals. This position affords Rietkerk the opportunity to share information about the zoo’s conservation efforts and become acquainted with world-renowned scientists, researchers, and geneticists at the San Diego Zoo Institute for Conservation Research. Her goal is to join the zoo’s conservation genetics team, led by geneticist Oliver Ryder, Ph.D., and her research at APU is paving the way.

Her current project with Loren Martin, Ph.D., professor and research director in the Department of Clinical Psychology, examines the GTF2i gene and its significance in cases of autism. Gene isolation is also key to conservation efforts, so Rietkerk’s research prepares her for a future career working with fragile wildlife populations nearing extinction.

“God appointed us as caretakers for His other creations,” she said. “I believe we have a responsibility to better understand God’s design and to protect it. At APU, I can be both a Christian and a scientist, while benefiting from a supportive environment and hands-on education. There are less than 25 students in my cohort, so I know my peers and professors well.”

Rietkerk recommends that undergraduate students interested in science and research consider a biotech degree. “It is a growing industry, particularly in Los Angeles and San Diego, so we are really in the perfect place for this type of work.” Professors of the biotechnology program are professionals in the field who have years of experience. Exciting innovations in biotechnology are leading to expansions in the job market. More than 50 percent of these companies are located in California. With abundant opportunities available for graduates of this type of program, a master’s-level degree in science and technology is a strategic starting point for Rietkerk and others interested in biotechnology careers. “Upon graduating, I hope to continue my career at San Diego Zoo Global, inspiring people visiting from all over the world with our rallying call to join in the ongoing fight to end extinction.”

Rebekah Bruckner ‘18 is an editorial and public relations intern in the Office of University Relations.