George Mason University
George Mason University Mason
George Mason University

Breanne Clippinger's Experience at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation

September 11, 2018

Photograph of Clippinger holding a turtleAn avid watcher of the National Zoo’s Giant Panda Cam, Honors College senior Breanne Clippinger seized the opportunity to blend her passion for pandas with her interest in animal behavior research at the Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation in Front Royal. Studying at SMSC for the 2017-18 academic year, Clippinger gained the skills she will need for a career in conservation science. 

The Smithsonian-Mason School of Conservation is committed to connecting future environmental leaders like Clippinger to the resources they need to succeed by offering unique environmental science curricula tailored directly to their career interests.  In the 'endangered species conservation' track, Clippinger took three five-week courses per semester, one focusing on applied research.  Further, she participated in a weekly discussion-based seminar as part of the curriculum. 

Clippinger had access to frequent guest speakers, Smithsonian research facilities, internship opportunities, and networking that provides her opportunities to ask for future professional references.  As a Resident Advisor on the School of Conservation campus, she had the opportunity to contribute to the social life of the on-campus housing.

Through her time at the School of Conservation, Clippinger realized her career goal is to combine behavioral and hormonal studies to increase the success of captive breeding for endangered species. 

“The School of Conservation helps you tailor what you want to do,” explains Clippinger.  “I came here thinking I wanted to pursue international research on endangered species, but I’ve realized I’d rather focus on behavioral observations in controlled settings,” explains the Pennsylvania native. 

“In the fall, I took Biodiversity Monitoring, Landscape Ecology, and a research-intensive course,” explains Clippinger, an Environmental Science major.  Her spring classes included Small Population Management, Conservation Management Planning and another research-intensive experience. 

For her fall research component, Clippinger was mentored by Dr. Jeanine Brown, a research physiologist with the Smithsonian National Zoo.  “I looked at alternative methods for indexing reproductive hormones in female giant pandas,” says Clippinger, who pursued her investigations in the National Zoo’s endocrinology lab. 

The opportunity allowed Clippinger to implement her own research design from start to finish.  “It was my first time pursuing a project with thousands of samples,” recounts Clippinger, whose mentor, Dr. Brown, is considering publishing the study. 

In April, Clippinger researched the effects of social enclosures on red pandas, examining their behavior using camera trapping technology.   

“There’s still so much that we don’t know, and it’s important to fill in those gaps in existing research,” says Clippinger, who plans to graduate in Fall 2018.  “Having the opportunity to work on research with publication potential is so cool.  I saw something no one else has ever seen.”  


Original reporting by Jimmy O'Hara. Outdoor photograph by Rayan Dahal. Lab photograph by Steve Paris.