Biology student wins impressive undergraduate award, continues research as a graduate

Jade Keehn researches the effects of renewable energy on reptile communities

4/30/2013 - By: Abbie Walker
Graduate Student Jade Keehn Graduate student Jade Keehn, winner of the 2013 Undergraduate Regents’ Scholar Award, compiles research while in Great Basin National Park. Photo provided by Robert Moore.

Mice and snakes and lizards, oh my!

These creatures might seem like things to avoid, but to Jade Keehn, a biology graduate at the University of Nevada, Reno, working with these types of animals is an everyday occurrence. To Keehn, animals are her co-workers, the "people" she shares an office with.

"My interest in this career has certainly grown with time," Keehn said. "I think the reason it has proved to be such a good fit, is due in part for my love of exploring, traveling, testing my limits and learning about and seeing such amazing animals."

Through time, research and dedication to these animals and her education Keehn was nominated as an undergraduate prior to her December 2012 graduation and awarded the impressive 2013 Undergraduate Regents' Scholar Award, a recognition awarded by the Nevada System of Higher Education. Keehn showed potential for continued success, as well as for demonstrating a commitment towards leadership, community service and academics.

"I'm very honored to have received the Regents' Scholar Award," Keehn said. "It feels great to have my hard work recognized. This award is competitive, so it means the world to have been picked."

Currently, Keehn is researching the effects of renewable energy on reptile communities, specifically lizards. She will look into the effects of the amount and quality of habitat available for lizard territories and foraging for lizards, as well as the effects of the thermal environment. Both of these could cause changes in population size and the survival of reptiles.

Keehn is also interested in community composition of reptiles, reptile predators, insects and plants and how local diversity might be impacted by renewable energy developments.

"Jade's passion right now is lizards," said Chris Feldman, assistant professor for the Department of Biology in the University's College of Science and Keehn's graduate advisor. "We are working on finding out how the new solar and wind plants moving into Nevada are going to impact smaller animals and the bugs they eat and the plants the bugs eat. We want to see how the food chain may or may not be affected."

Being around animals that are considered "scary, creepy and dangerous" was not always something Keehn was familiar with. Now a professional at handling many different types of animals, Keehn remembers what it felt like the first time.

"During my first month at the Great Basin National Park as an undergraduate, we were out in the field looking for reptiles including venomous and non-venomous snakes," Keehn said. "Up until this point, I had not caught any type of snake and I saw my first snake of the season underneath some sagebrush. I reached out to grab hold of its tail and realized that I didn't know what kind of snake it was." So, Keehn was holding onto her very first hissing, slithering and potentially venomous snake wondering what to do next. "I did the best thing I could think of: scream, jump away and fling the snake back into the bush," she said. "Thankfully, no one else heard my terror and after a few more weeks I became more comfortable handling snakes."

From Truckee, Calif., Keehn always had a fondness of nature, its animals and a desire to see natures beauty here and abroad.  Thanks to a degree in wildlife ecology through the College of Agriculture, Biotechnology and Natural Resources, opportunities to visit and study in amazing places like Costa Rica became possible.

"Living in Costa Rica was an extraordinary and eye-opening experience," Keehn said. "I met a lot of fun and interesting people I call my friends, but more than that, I had the opportunity to learn about their environments and see how they approach their conservation challenges."

Enjoying life and loving what you do are two mottos Keehn lives by. It means working hard, even if you do not love everything you do, and envisioning the end goal when the work gets hard.

"I put a lot of time and effort into school," Keehn said. "Even when I am buckling down and studying for an exam, I could still give you an earful on how much I enjoy what I do. All of the long nights and early morning cram sessions are worthwhile because they're helping me to get to where I want to be."

For Keehn's undergraduate thesis for the University Honors Program, she measured more than 1,400 lizards. Keehn was researching the size differences of lizards found on Anaho Island in Pyramid Lake, Nev. and lizards found on the mainland.

"Jade is very talented and intelligent," Feldman said. "She was almost doing the work of someone getting their masters degree as an undergraduate on her own, with support from the biology staff. She is so motivated, self-driven and mature for her age."

If Keehn is not on campus, she is most likely enjoying Mother Nature and her beloved animals. If you would like to see Keehn in person, she will be accepting her Regents' Scholar Award at the Honor the Best Ceremony held at the University's Joe Crowley Student Union Ballroom at 3 p.m., Tuesday, May 14. 


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