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Student Spotlight: Rachel Bittner

Childhood visits to Texas state parks led Rachel Bittner to choose an education and a career path involving wildlife.

“My parents started taking me camping before I could walk,” said Rachel. “We camped and hiked and fished in state parks across Texas. I learned to love nature, wildlife and the outdoors by just being outside with my family.”

That experience led her to pursue a Natural Resources Management bachelor’s degree from Texas Tech after she graduated from Lockhart High School in 2014. She learned that she could make wildlife a career during a career development event organized by her school’s FFA Club. That’s when she knew what she wanted to study in college.

“I don’t think I would have chosen that degree path if I hadn’t had so much experience outdoors in state parks,” she said. “When I was a little girl, I knew that I wanted to protect the land and animals and the wild things and wild places, but I didn’t really know how. I just knew that was what I was meant to do.”

At Texas Tech she worked as a student research technician for three PhD students who were studying seahorses, elk and axis deer. Her undergraduate research project focused on using species distribution models to predict suitable habitat for seagrass, using the Texas Gulf Coast as a case study.

The summer between her sophomore and junior year, she worked as a student intern at her very favorite Texas state park: Big Bend Ranch.

“I love exploring Big Bend Ranch,” said Rachel. “It was really great to be part of the team that welcomed visitors from all over Texas and beyond. It really cemented my love for parks, and my passion for the borderlands region of Texas.”

Volunteering on a mule deer project introduced her to Sul Ross State University and the Borderlands Research Institute. When it came time to make a decision on where to apply for graduate school, it was a no-brainer.

“I have loved the Borderlands Research Institute experience,” she said. “The class sizes are small and you can get one-on-one learning. If you’re stuck on something the professors are always available to help.”

Rachel’s thesis project is examining parasite loads of eyeworms and cecal worms in the three species of desert quail found in West Texas: scaled quail, Montezuma quail and Gambel’s quail. Over the course of her research project, Rachel and her teammates will collect approximately 670 quail that will be necropsied.

“At first it was a little unnerving handling the dead birds and having to poke around their eyes and then intestines to determine parasite loads,” she said. “But after a few hundred you get used to it. My family is very interested in it all, and always ask me lots of questions about my project.”

Rachel hopes to defend her thesis later this year and graduate with a Range and Wildlife Management master’s degree in December. After that, she hopes to pursue her dream career.

“I hope to work for a state or federal wildlife agency,” she said. “I want to work in the research or parasitology field. I’d also be very happy to work within a parks system, like for Texas Parks and Wildlife. We’ll see what the future holds.”

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Rachel’s experience at state parks led her to develop a passion for wildlife and the outdoors.

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Rachel interned at Big Bend Ranch State Park the summer after her sophomore year.

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Rachel holds a captured prairie chicken, equipping it with a band and backpack to track its movements.