Nichole Huntley Begins Her Dream Job as a Zoo Animal Nutritionist

By Ellen Bombela, College of Agriculture and Life Sciences Communications Service

Nichole Huntley used to play veterinarian with her stuffed animals when she was young. Now she’s pursuing her dream as an animal nutritionist working with zoo animals.

In June, Huntley will begin working with Mazuri, one of the nation’s largest food suppliers for zoo animals. Huntley, a graduate student in swine nutrition, began working with zoo animals in high school.

“My junior and senior year I was able to spend half of every school day at the Omaha Zoo. We took classes and essentially did internships in the different departments,” Huntley said. “We got to do all kinds of nutrition research and learned a lot about the animals. I was very lucky I figured out exactly what I wanted to do pretty early.”

During high school, Huntley worked with Cheryl Morris, who was a nutritionist at the Omaha Henry Doorly Zoo. Morris is now the chief conservation officer at the zoo, but worked as an associate professor in animal nutrition at Iowa State when Huntley to decided to come to Iowa State to pursue a doctorate degree.

Huntley contacted Morris to see if she had any openings for doctorate students. She didn’t, but John Patience did. Patience, a professor in animal science, has been Huntley’s mentor and supervisor. He says he provided guidance, but she did the tough stuff.

“Nichole is a motivated self-starter. When it comes to research we talk about her objectives, then she takes it and turns it into a detailed project,” Patience said.

Patience said one of Huntley’s greatest strengths is her ability to use her time efficiently and focus on goals.

“There are lots of people who work hard, but that doesn’t always mean they are successful,” Patience said. “Not only does she get things done on time, she gets them done at a high level.”

Huntley believes that working hard is the best and only option for her.

“I don’t think I would ever be okay knowing that I didn’t do something to the best of my ability,” Huntley said.

Huntley is graduating with a doctorate in swine nutrition. She’ll be presenting and defending her dissertation on May 15. 

“As part of my dissertation I have three experiments, and within those experiments I am addressing how different carbohydrates and sugars can impact energy metabolism in pigs,” Huntley said. 

Huntley interned for Mazuri as undergraduate student and worked at the St. Louis Zoo. Huntley is thankful for the opportunity take a permanent position with the company.

“It is a small company, so it is rare that a position opens up, but it was great timing and so I took advantage of the opportunity,” Huntley said. “They have a really good reputation, do a lot of research and support animal conservation, so I’m really excited to be able to be a part of that.”

Huntley received both her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in animal science from the  University of Missouri. She is a comparative nutritionist, which means her expertise expands across different species. At Iowa State she was active in various clubs and organizations and received awards from the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences and the Department of Animal Science.