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Early Penn State grad hopes for vet school opening

May 28, 1998|By DON AINES

by Don Aines

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Jhondra Funk

WAYNESBORO, Pa. - "We teach pigs to play video games," Jhondra Funk-Keenan said of a doctoral research project she has been assisting with at Penn State University.

While it sounds like an episode from "Green Acres," it's actually serious research, according to the Waynesboro woman.

It's not unusual for college students to assist in research projects. However, at an age when most students are thinking about their junior year, she already has earned a bachelor's degree in animal biosciences and is working toward her goal of becoming a veterinarian who works with large animals.

Funk-Keenan, 19, is on the alternate list for the veterinary school at Kansas State University and hopes to be heading for Manhattan, Kan., this fall. If not, she said she'll spend the fall relaxing and preparing to work on a post-graduate degree.

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In several respects, seeking admission to veterinary school is more competitive than medical school. For one thing, there are far fewer vet schools in the country.

Funk-Keenan said applicants usually are required to have a minimum 3.4 grade-point average and take upper-level biology and chemistry courses. She said they also want applicants to have 400 hours of work with a veterinarian or similar experience.

Funk-Keenan, of 118 Myrtle Ave., wasted little time getting through either high school or college.

She earned her diploma from St. Maria Goretti High School in Hagerstown in August 1995. On May 16, she graduated from Penn State with a 3.63 grade-point average.

It wasn't just natural intelligence that earned her a degree in a difficult major in just three years. As she tells it, there was a heavy course load and plenty of discipline involved.

"I usually took about 17 or 18 credits during the regular year," she said. She took 11 1/2 credits her first summer and 15 her second.

"There were a lot of nights I couldn't go out with my friends because I had too much work to do," she recalled.

She spent her first year of college at Penn State's Mont Alto, Pa., campus, where her mother, Nancy Funk, is a professor of theater arts.

"This was the first summer I haven't taken classes," Funk-Keenan said. That's why she returned to State College, Pa., earlier this week to resume work on the "pig cognitive project."

She'll be doing that six days a week over the summer, working on the database and maintaining the facility where Bert, Ernie, Ebony and Ivory have been learning to manipulate computer joysticks with their snouts.

The animals, a pair of Yorkshires and two Vietnamese potbellied pigs, learn to move a ball around a video screen, performing simple tasks in return for treats.

"It's usually dog food. Sometimes it's diet dog food," she said.

Funk-Keenan said the pigs began the project when they were young, first learning to distinguish between items placed in their pens before moving on to computers.

"It's testing their long-term versus their short-term memories," she said. The goal is to enable the pigs to communicate their needs to farmers, although if they knew their fate, they might be less cooperative.

She recalled how Bert's water was turned off one day.

"He tugged on my skirt, he looked at me and then he looked at his water," she said.

"I find it interesting that a species lower than man has a thinking pattern similar to man," she said.

In addition to working with pigs, Funk-Keenan and her mother have quite a menagerie at home, including five rabbits, seven fish, two dogs, guinea pigs and hamsters.

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