Call of the Wild
Brandon Gross discovers his calling through undergraduate research experiences
by Kaitlin Spraberry
His peers in the lab nicknamed him “The Croc Whisperer.” While most would shy away from crocodile-inhabited waters, he fearlessly dives in to catch the animals with his bare hands. With a passion for crocodiles and a childhood hero like Steve Irwin, Brandon Gross is no ordinary undergraduate.
Gross, a zoology major from St. Louis, Mo., first visited Texas Tech as a junior in high school. At the time, he met Lou Densmore, professor and chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, and director of the Texas Tech University/Howard Hughes Medical Institute (TTU/HHMI) Science Education Program. Their meeting facilitated the discovery of a shared passion between the two–crocodiles–and helped Gross make the decision to attend Texas Tech after graduation.
For the past several years, Gross has gained hands-on experience in research through field work, volunteer occupations, and internship positions. His time at both the St. Louis Zoo and the Dallas Zoo gave him the opportunity to work with a variety of animals–from green anacondas in the Reptile Department at the St. Louis Zoo to the Dallas Zoo, where he worked with crocodile monitors in the reptile and amphibian departments and penguins in the Bird Department.
Gross’ volunteer work at the Dallas Zoo opened the door for him to travel to the Virgin Islands to assist with a graduate student’s master thesis. The research consisted of marking and recapturing methods to study endangered Anegada Rock iguanas.
“It was the first time in my life that I got to do fieldwork,” Gross said, “and I knew from then on I wanted to do research for the rest of my life.”
Gross spent seven months studying and researching with the University of Queensland in Australia during a study abroad opportunity.
Gross’ internship with the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Coiba Marine National park in Panama allowed him to conduct crocodile research both in the lab and the field.
Gross is currently working on testing the efficiency of microsatellites in determining the genetic integration of American and Morelet crocodiles.
Click images to enlarge.
Gross wasted no time plunging into undergraduate research upon entering Texas Tech. He immediately began volunteering in Densmore’s lab, where he was presented with more travel and educational opportunities.
For seven months, Gross lived, studied and researched at the University of Queensland in Australia. During his study-abroad trip, he was able to expand his zoological interests by working up close and personally with indigenous animals such as the two species of crocodiles: saltwater and freshwater. Gross had the chance to conduct his own research through his class and participate in research outside of school through volunteer work.
“For our class we had a project where we had to do our own research,” Gross said. “We did a study on Rock Wallabies, testing their ear movement and their awareness. We wanted to associate ear movement with how aware they are with their surroundings and how they act toward those sounds.”
In addition to his own research, Gross volunteered for various field research opportunities, including a research study on the effects of toxic Cane Toads on a population of freshwater crocodiles in Lake Argyle, Kununurra, Western Australia, as well as recording crocodile sizes through nighttime surveillance.
His encounters with the aquatic reptiles were not over after his trip to Australia. For three months, Gross interned at the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute in Coiba National Park in Panama, conducting crocodile research in the lab and in the field.
“In Panama we did most of our hunting in the water,” Gross said. “You could see the animals through the eye shines with the headlamps, and we would usually catch them with our bare hands. One of the animals I caught, its size was a little deceiving by the water. It looked smaller than it was, but it ended up being a little over five feet long.”
Pursuing Undergraduate Research
After returning from his fieldwork in Australia, Gross applied to the TTU/HHMI Science Education Program.
“It was probably the best thing that I’ve done so far,” Gross said. “I came into this lab not knowing much about molecular systematics or molecular evolution. But being in this lab has given me hands-on experiences that teach me live, real-time practices, which can be applied to what I learn in my classes.”
His main research project is “Detecting American and Morelet Crocodiles’ Introgressive Hybridization Using a Large Number of Microsatellites.” Using DNA samples of American and Morelet’s crocodiles and hybrids between the two species, Gross tests the efficiency of the microsatellites in determining the genetic integration of these samples.
“Right now the first step for me is basically the technical aspect of it,” Gross said, “making sure that these microsatellites actually do work, and that we can use them to test on wild populations in the future, as well as potentially using them as forensic tools for farming for commercial crocodile farms.”
“I’m confident in saying, that right now, working with crocodiles is the reason why I exist.” — Brandon Gross
Using the microsatellites as forensic tools could make it possible to trace crocodile meat samples to their origins, in some cases, specific commercial crocodile farms.
“They were developed and isolated from the saltwater crocodiles in Australia,” Gross said, “but they haven’t really been tested fully on populations of the new world crocodiles. So that’s what we’re doing, testing them and how effective they are.”
Gross was able to present his research in Manaus, Brazil, for the 20th Working Meeting of the Crocodile Specialist Group, where he met fellow researchers with similar interests as well as industry experts. He credits undergraduate research for making his experience at Texas Tech unique.
Undergraduate researcher Brandon Gross has a passion for crocodiles. The biology student from St. Louis credits his undergraduate experience to his mentors and the TTU/HHMI Science Education Program.
Meet the Researcher
Lou Densmore is a professor and chair in the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Arts and Sciences, as well as director of the TTU/HHMI Undergraduate Science Education Program at CISER.
“These experiences gave me the opportunity to experience things I wouldn’t normally if I wasn’t involved in undergraduate research,” Gross said. “And doing things with crocodiles definitely gives you an opportunity to do a lot more than you’d think you’d be able to do.”
The real-life experiences gained from fieldwork are not the only positive learning outcomes from his research. Gross said that working with other researchers in the lab has given him valuable communication skills and taught him to be more patient and open-minded.
“I do promote undergraduate research for other undergraduates here at Texas Tech,” Gross said. “You know, if you want to do research and there’s a field that you love, it doesn’t have to be science, just go for it. Just open the door and walk right in and start talking to people about it.”
The Next Crocodile Hunter
Gross will finish his undergraduate degree in May, and he has some big plans for his future. The young man whose childhood hero was Steve Irwin the Crocodile Hunter, has grown up to swim with crocodiles himself and has entertained the thought of having his own television show. However, if television stardom is not in his future, Gross says being in the field will be just as fulfilling.
“I like traveling, and I love the fieldwork,” Gross said. “If I could do anything, it would be mostly that.”
Like his mentor Lou Densmore, eventually Gross would like to earn his Ph.D., become a professor, and continue research and travelling.
“My overall plan is to be a professor, as well,” Gross said. “My mentor impacted my life so much, and I only feel that it’s right to do the same thing for other people.”
Whatever his future may hold one thing is for sure, Gross plans to continue pursuing his lifelong passion of working with crocodiles.
“I’m confident in saying, that right now,” Gross said, “working with crocodiles is the reason why I exist.”
More about TTU/HHMI Undergraduate Research Scholar Program
The TTU/HHMI Science Education Program is part of the Center for the Integration of Science Education & Research at Texas Tech. The Center was established in 1992 through funding from HHMI. The research experience benefits undergraduate students with the following possible opportunities:
- Earning money while gaining valuable career-related science, technology and science education experiences
- Working year-round or during the summer with mentor faculty in scientific research labs
- Involvement in service projects with other undergraduate students
- Publishing in peer-reviewed journals before graduation
- Traveling and presenting at state, national and international scientific meetings
Apply Now: New Scholar Application
Kaitlin Spraberry is a Multimedia Communications Intern for the Office of the Vice President for Research. Video produced by Scott Irlbeck, Senior Editor of Research & Academic Communications for the Office of the Vice President for Research at Texas Tech University. Profile image courtesy Neal Hinkle. Research photos courtesy Brandon Gross.