Freshmen entering their first year of college may sometimes feel like a deer caught in headlights. That wasn’t the case for Nathan Cowley, who enrolled at Mississippi State with a laser-sharp focus.
Cowley, a rising sophomore wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture major, has always set his sights on ambitious personal and career goals. When deciding on a career path, he knew he wanted to foster his passion for hunting and fishing. When choosing a university, he researched those offering the best degree programs in his prospective field. After a visit to MSU and the College of Forest Resources, he knew this was the place for him.
“I toured the College of Forest Resources, and it was a whole different experience than any other college campus I’d visited,” said the Wake Forest, North Carolina native. “I could tell that everyone I spoke to truly wanted me to be a part of this program.”
Within three weeks of making the move to Starkville, Cowley began his freshman year by securing a research assistant position with the MSU Deer Ecology and Management Lab.
“When I first started, I worked under Miranda Huang, a research associate, conducting surveys and processing data for her research on chronic wasting disease in deer,” said Cowley.
Chronic wasting disease, or CWD, is a contagious, fatal, neurological disease that affects deer, including white-tailed deer, mule deer, elk, moose and caribou. It causes a spongy degeneration of the infected animal’s brain. It also causes the animal to lose weight, which is why CWD is called a “wasting” disease.
Cowley’s work with Huang seeks to determine how differing social groups, patterns and rutting activity may progress the spread of the disease through the population. He sorts through the data produced by trail cameras to identify individual bucks by their unique antler and body characteristics. He also determines which bucks frequent the same area together, using the same scrapes—markings deer leave behind on trees and soil—and possibly transmitting chronic wasting disease.
Cowley’s work in the MSU Deer Ecology and Management Lab has helped refine his path. His academic concentration is the scientific side of the wildlife, fisheries and aquaculture major, and his plans are to delve deeper into the “why” behind wildlife behaviors. After graduation, he hopes to further the research and application of wildlife conservation and education of habitat management for natural resource companies.
“One of the largest misconceptions of the industry is that sportsmen only want to take from the natural resources available and not care for wildlife,” said Cowley. “Being an avid sportsman myself for many years now, I can testify that this thought process is false. Sportsmen like me care more because we want to preserve the activities we all enjoy for future generations.”