Aspiring conservationist Grace Oram didn’t have to look far for a habitat to study.
The Franklin & Marshall senior found Lancaster County to be the perfect setting to study the impact of urbanization on native wildlife.
“Specifically, I'm focusing on raccoon ecology. Southeast Pennsylvania is a hot spot for the rabies virus and raccoons cause the majority of cases,” said Oram, a biology major and Spanish minor.
In 2020 alone, raccoons have accounted for 42 percent of reported rabies cases in PA.
Under the guidance of Professor of Biology Daniel Ardia, Oram investigated the factors affecting mammal diversity in remnant forest fragments. The research is supported by the Center for Sustained Engagement with Lancaster and builds upon ongoing work with community partner Lancaster Conservancy.
“Our world is experiencing an unprecedented crash in biodiversity, in part because of urbanization. Urbanization increases human-animal interactions, leading to only a subset of species being able to thrive in a novel, fragmented and rapidly changing environment,” Oram said.
Through field and lab work, as well as data collected by previous students, Oram learned how urbanization and ecosystem structure influences the distribution and abundance of raccoons. She used these patterns to make predictions about human rabies infections in the region.
“Despite the availability of a vaccine, rabies continues to be a public health problem that affects human society. Understanding the ecology of rabies within Southeastern Pa. will help government and conservation agencies develop policies that can prevent further spillover events of this deadly viral disease,” Oram said.
While COVID-19 presented some limitations, it also helped solidify Oram’s research focus.
“After the coronavirus pandemic, I read ‘Spillover’ by David Quammen and I became fascinated by animal-borne diseases,” she said. “I've always been interested in animal health. I wanted to be a veterinarian for years until I realized I was more interested in wildlife.”
Oram plans to take a gap year after graduation before pursuing a graduate degree in conservation biology.
“I was drawn to biology because I love understanding the world around me. Biology also combines my interests in anatomy and disease with my love for nature,” she said.