PBS grad finds dream job

PBS Grad Finds Her Dream Job: Working with Hero Rats

In the run up to her May 6 graduation, PBS major Sydney Brotheridge was busy learning Swahili.

Why is a senior who is about to begin a job as a researcher so intent on gaining this new skill in her final weeks of college? She will be doing work for which she was well-trained as an undergraduate researcher in Professor Jonathon Crystal’s Comparative Cognition Lab. There she worked with rats to conduct studies of animal memory, which capitalize on these animals’ keen sense of smell to identify features of memory they share with humans to find promising new treatments for diseases like Alzheimer’s, that involve severe memory loss.

Yet Brotheridge will not just be working in any lab. She is working in a lab in Morogoro, Tanzania, at a Belgian company called Apopo, where researchers study and prepare African giant-pouched rats to perform tasks quite different from those they perform in Crystal’s lab. Through research and training at the lab, these “hero rats” learn to sniff out landmines in countries where landmines litter the landscape and to detect positive TB samples more accurately than existing medical tests.

It’s pretty much my dream job.

Sydney Brotheridge

In this way Brotheridge sees the job as a chance to have a real impact on people’s lives.

“It’s pretty much my dream job,” Brotheridge explains. “It combines my love for being adventurous and independent with what I love doing, science and working with the rats.” She also loves the idea that the work has such a direct impact on people’s lives, preventing injury and death from landmines, enabling farmers to reclaim otherwise unusable land, and to help doctors diagnose and prevent the spread of TB.

She is especially excited about the company’s interest in exploring the rats’ untapped potential for other valuable tasks. Among these are the ability to detect symptoms of neurodegenerative diseases, finding victims amidst the rubble of earthquakes and working with customs officials to detect illegal substances.

Such remarkable abilities help explain Brotheridge’s unabashed passion for working with the underappreciated, even stigmatized, creatures.

“I love working with the little guys,” she does not hesitate to say. “I don’t think I could have found a better job.”