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NIU alumna researches giant pandas in China

April 8, 2013
Sarah Bexell

Sarah Bexell

Sarah Bexell is one of very few American conservationist researchers who have had the opportunity to work on panda conservation in China at the Chengdu Panda Base. This honor is by invitation only from the Chinese government and is reserved for exceptional candidates who stand out in their fields.

Bexell is just that: an exceptional researcher impassioned by her love of science, nature and wildlife.

She originally planned to pursue a degree in pre-veterinary studies, but quickly realized this wasn’t a path that suited her. “I hate cutting and blood. I passed out, literally, several times while observing surgeries during class.”

Stalwart in her childhood dream of studying wildlife and the environment, Bexell was challenged to consider other avenues that would allow her to study what stoked her passion. She graduated with a B.A. in biology, and started to search for universities that suited her needs.

She found what she needed in NIU’s physical anthropology program in 1993.

“I really wanted to work with Dan Gebo. I was fascinated by his research on primates, and I knew that NIU was where I wanted to go for my graduate degree,” Bexell says. “My time at NIU was formative to the future of my career in wildlife and environmental conservation. It was the first time I ever heard about endangered species. Dr. Gebo was saying in lecture, ‘This monkey is endangered, and this lemur is endangered,’ and it was the first time I got mad and sad and knew what I wanted to do.”

Dan Gebo

Dan Gebo

Gebo remembers Bexell as a driven, hard-working woman who knew exactly what she wanted to do.

“She wanted to focus on primate behavior, which isn’t my area of expertise, but I was happy to help her find the resources she needed to succeed,” Gebo says. “She ended up doing research on the golden lion tamarin at Brookfield Zoo, which was very impressive and exciting for her.”

Bexell emphasized how extraordinary it was to have Gebo as a guide and resource.

“He pointed me to a wealth of resources and supported my needs and passions as a student despite the fact that he focused on primate evolution, and I wanted to focus on primate behavior.”

NIU’s location provided a strategic advantage of NIU’s location. “It was perfect for me because I wasn’t ready to go too far from home, but the university is so close to countless research opportunities in the city [Chicago], like Brookfield Zoo, the Art Museum and the Museum of Science and Industry.”

Her research has moved beyond focusing on primate behavior, to researching conservation efforts world-wide and studying other threats toward wildlife behavior, including giant pandas, red pandas and black-footed ferrets.

Photo of a giant panda bearBexell’s ambitious nature provided her with the energy needed to carve out her own niche in the world.

Since her time at NIU, she’s acquired a master’s degree in science education and a Ph.D. in early childhood education from Georgia State University. She’s combined her degrees to research effective methods of teaching children about their behaviors, and how they can develop or change those behaviors to assist in conservation efforts.

Her current research focuses on ways to educate children about conservation efforts to foster environmental stewardship at an early age.

“Early childhood is the time when concepts of morality and compassion are being cemented in a child’s brain. These are really formative years for kids,” Bexell says. “So, if we can teach them at this age how their behaviors and actions can negatively or positively affect nature, they can carry that with them throughout life.”

Bexell has just co-authored a book with a colleague in China, Zhang Zhihe, titled “Giant Pandas: Born Survivors.” The book explores giant panda behavior, current trends in conservation efforts, and “shatters myths” about these “amazing beings.” She says the book is about “who” pandas are, not “what” they are, reflecting how she often thinks of animals – as “whos,” not “whats.”

To learn more about Bexell’s conservation efforts at Cehngdu Panda Base, listen to or read the transcripts of her interview with NPR and her interview with NBC.

by Natalie Santiago