Meet our student researchers – Sophie, Royal Veterinary College


Thinking of applying for an AWF student research grant? Find out what it’s like to undertake a student research project and get advice from previous researchers in our mini Q&A series. Meet Sophie Common who is currently under taking her project.

Research topic: Is faecal shedding a route of detection of Elephant Endotheliotropic Herpesvirus in Adult Shedders of Asian Elephants?

Why did you chose this project?

Sophie: The topic is looking into whether it is possible to detect elephant endotheliotropic herpesvirus in faecal samples using PCR, when elephants are shedding the virus in other secretions (saliva). The associated haemorrhagic disease is the leading cause of death of captive Asian elephants in Western zoos, but its impact in the wild is unknown. I was very interested to see whether a non-invasive detection method would be possible which may aid in studying the disease in wild elephants in the future (as there have been emerging cases). EEHV may become a conservation concern for Asian elephants, which was the driving factor behind undertaking this study. Elephants are also my favourite animal!

What made you apply for the AWF student grant? 

Sophie: I applied for the grant, as I was aware that access in the UK to elephants shedding EEHV is limited, but in Thailand there are many cases which are confirmed, giving a good opportunity to study the virus. Lab work is a large part of the study, which is very expensive, and I would not have otherwise had the funding to be able to undertake it. I was also aware that EEHV associated disease is a large welfare concern for elephants, and further study may help to mitigate its effects and improve monitoring of the disease in captivity, with the potential for disease mitigation thus improving welfare.

What did you learn while doing your research project? 

Sophie: I have learnt a lot so far; I have been able to gain practical experience with elephants while sample collecting, as well as shadowing the vets here for treatment of real cases of the disease. Moreover, I have undertaken a lot of laboratory work, which I am very new to. I feel I have developed as a person through communicating and learning about the Thai culture and its longstanding link to elephants, as well as through making mistakes and working out how to overcome them, particularly in relation to laboratory techniques. I have even been able to undertake a practical course on elephant health and reproduction whilst in Thailand.

What advice would you give to future applicants?

Sophie: I would advise future applicants to apply, even if they have no previous research experience and do not expect to get the grant. I had never had any previous experience of grant writing, and did not think I was in with a chance! But projects which can help to improve animal welfare are vitally important, and someone has to do them! Plan your project as early as possible, and gain advice from as many people as you can as this will help to maximise your knowledge of the subject.

Find out more about the AWF Student Grant Scheme: