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Shedd, Northwestern Team Up to Protect Animals Through Expanded Partnership

Northwestern Engineering Students Develop Technology Innovations to Enhance Animal Welfare for Shedd’s Animals and Their Counterparts in the Wild

October 15, 2018

Shedd researcher Karen Murchie, Ph.D., stands in a cold local stream taking measurements.

Dr. Karen Murchie, a research biologist and instructor, is studying the movements of white and longnose suckers during their spring spawning runs. To facilitate data collection, two teams of students from Northwestern’s Design Thinking and Communication class were tasked with developing an underwater video camera mount that could withstand high water velocities in rivers and creeks, while hours of behavioral data can be recorded.

For more than a decade, Shedd Aquarium’s Animal Health team has turned to Northwestern Engineering to develop innovative solutions that further enhance Shedd’s animal welfare practices. But, for the first time this year, the aquarium’s conservation scientists have been proposing projects to the students that advance their ability to conduct research to protect populations of animals in the wild. This expansion to the partnership aides Shedd’s field research in the Great Lakes basin and in the Caribbean region while offering engineering students an opportunity to get their hands wet creating prototype technology for real-life challenges that come while studying animals in nature.

“We developed this partnership because when it comes to aquatic animal medicine, there aren’t many commercially designed products that meet our needs,” said Dr. Bill Van Bonn, vice president for animal health at Shedd Aquarium. “To provide our level of advanced care to more than 1,500 species – ranging from a 700-pound California sea lion to a 7-ounce seahorse – requires a lot of specialized technology. Now, after many successful prototypes have been implemented within Shedd’s four walls, our conservation research team is bringing a new element to the program by testing students’ innovative technologies in field research.”

The partnership provides a one-of-a-kind, hands-on learning experience for students. By applying their knowledge from coursework, they develop innovative solutions while working as a team, problem-solving and communicating effectively with Shedd experts. It also allows students to see various career paths and receive mentorship.

“Students at every level, from freshmen through seniors, apply design thinking to real project with real clients,” said Stacy Benjamin, director of the Segal Design Certificate program at Northwestern’s McCormick School of Engineering. “We look for opportunities that require the students to combine creativity with technical and engineering skills to explore a range of possible solutions. Projects with Shedd Aquarium provide that mix and the students are always excited to collaborate with such an important Chicago institution.”

As Northwestern students head back-to-school, Shedd’s experts are brainstorming future ways to engage the classroom, whether it be tackling new challenges or building upon three projects launched this past year.

For example, to understand more about the challenges that migratory fishes face in the Great Lakes, Shedd’s Dr. Karen Murchie, a research biologist and instructor, is studying the movements of white and longnose suckers during their spring spawning runs. To facilitate data collection, two teams of students from Northwestern’s Design Thinking and Communication class were tasked with developing an underwater video camera mount that could withstand high water velocities in rivers and creeks, while hours of behavioral data can be recorded.

Another team of Northwestern students were paired with Shedd’s Dr. Steve Kessel, director of marine research, who is assessing the ecosystem-wide benefits of protecting sharks in the Bahamas by collecting data on Caribbean shark species by taking tissue and blood samples, tagging and releasing them, and then later observing their relative locations. The student engineers created the “Snappy Shark Timer,” a prototype device to ensure animal welfare by completing data collections in a timely manner.

A group also worked with Dr. Van Bonn and animal trainers at Shedd to construct an anesthesia mask designed specifically for California sea lions, which is not currently available commercially and is essential for the veterinary team to have on-hand.

During the longstanding partnership, Northwestern students have developed a wide range of projects, including a state-of-the-art otter food maze that serves as an interactive enrichment tool to challenge Shedd’s sea otters, a penguin orthopedic bootie to protect the feet of longer-lived rockhopper penguins and a carrier for an ultrasound device. More than 20 projects have been completed since 2005 when Bob and Charlene Shaw, both Northwestern alumni and longtime Shedd donors, proposed the idea.