Walker O’Neil

Walker O'Neil in the tropics for the Tropical Biology Seminar

Hometown: Fredonia, NY
High School: Fredonia High School
Major: Environmental Science with Honors
Campus: Jamestown

Most children have slightly unrealistic dreams of what they want to be when they grow up. Very few four-year-olds tell their parents that they plan on becoming an actuary or project manager. In a random sampling of local four-year-olds, you’re far more likely to hear occupations like firefighter, or professional athlete, or international super spy, or…a primate?
“When I was four years old, I announced to my parents that for my career I was going to become a monkey,” said Walker O’Neil, a student in the environmental science program at Jamestown Community College.
Over time, Walker gradually came to the conclusion that job prospects for his intended career path were slim, and decided it was time to reevaluate his plans. Walker settled on the next best thing—primate research.

And if your goal is to one day study primates for a living, then you need to go where the primates are. This desire to see and study monkeys in their natural environment led Walker to apply for a spot in the Tropical Biology Seminar his freshman year.

The seminar, held every other year during the spring semester, provides students with the opportunity to study the ecosystem of the American tropics through firsthand field experience. It is like no other class at JCC. Guided by professors Jan Bowman and Bob Ratterman, JCC students spend nearly two weeks visiting research sites, national parks, and wildlife refuges. They trek deep into the primary rainforest and go snorkeling along pristine coral reefs.  Not surprisingly, many students list it as a highlight of their time at JCC.
Walker loved it. He was in his element. Not only did he get to see capuchin monkeys up close, but he also got to talk and compare notes with professional researchers and biologists. He did so much while there that now, when people ask him about the trip, “I just don’t know what to say. This has happened to me ever since I got back. Everybody’s said ‘Tell me about Costa Rica’ and I don’t know what to say. So much happened.”
Here’s a brief rundown of the trip: they visited a famous research station, stayed in a beautiful tropical resort, went ziplining, stayed at another beautiful tropical resort, went snorkeling at Bocas del Toro in Panama, and visited the La Selva biological station. Exhausted yet?
The trip seems only to have whetted Walker’s appetite, though. After his sophomore year at JCC, he’s planning on returning for at least another semester so that he can study abroad in New Zealand. The island ecology, he says, has led to an incredible array of unique species. “It’s a great place to study animal behavior, because you’ll find birds there that you won’t find anywhere else.”
Then, it will be on to the State University of New York College of Environmental Science and Forestry, where he intends to study wildlife science. Although he knows that he wants to go to graduate school regardless, Walker also plans to apply to the Peace Corps after earning his bachelor’s. Who knows, maybe he’ll be sent back to Costa Rica. There are worse places for an aspiring primate researcher to be.
Favorite class:  “Definitely the trop bio class. We were told to pick a topic before leaving for the trip and write a seven-page paper on it that we presented during the trip. I chose howler monkey communications.”
Favorite teacher: “I definitely like Jan and Becky (Nystrom, another professor in the environmental science program) a lot. I’ve worked with them a ton. It’s probably unfair to pick either or both of them, so I’d probably have to go with one of my English professors from last semester, Gib Higgins. He made me work for my A. I spent the whole semester trying to get an A on a paper and I finally got one.”
Favorite spot on campus: “I really like the College Woods. That’s just a fun spot where you can go. It’s close to the RTPI (Roger Tory Peterson Institute), and I’ve done some volunteering with them.”
Other Campus Involvement: “I’m going to be a resident assistant in the Hillside Suites this next year, which I’m really looking forward to. I stayed in the halls my first year on a whim, but it opened up a world of opportunities for me to get involved and build connections, such as joining the Earth Awareness Club and volunteering with the Roger Tory Peterson Institute.”
Advice for Other Students: “Definitely take advantage of all the opportunities you can. There’s so much that I never thought JCC would have that can help me in the future. I never thought I’d be going on a research trip to Costa Rica and getting a feel for what that might entail. I’m taking a research class this semester where we’re going out taking samples, performing tests, and reading research papers on it. That’s not something I thought I’d be doing in my first year of college.”
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