Even before Richmond students graduate, they are already hard at work trying to answer some of the toughest questions challenging scientists.

Meet Hilary Rinsland, ’18. She’s a pre-veterinary student and her summer research aims to find out how parasites like the flea may be threatening pika populations among the rocky slopes of the American west and Canada. (Pikas, for anyone unfamiliar, are an adorable, small mammal related most closely to rabbits and hare.)

Rinsland’s field work has led her to self-describe as one of the “Flea Girls” on Team Pika. She’s been waking up early to shuttle up steep roads on a four-wheel drive vehicle and hike her gear up the ridges in Colorado, trapping and releasing the small critters after collecting fleas.

She’s also using wildlife cameras spread out over a few locations to look into other animal dens (mainly marmots) to see how often pikas come in contact with their alpine neighbors and whether they’re sharing fleas and plague.

“This job is very physical in the early morning, but the payoff is incredible,” Rinsland writes. “The views are spectacular, the alpine wildflowers are lovely, the pikas are adorable, the marmots are mischievous, and the human company ain’t bad either.”

Her opportunity to do this type of field work is critical, but her research will really begin when she’s back on campus in the lab. There she can analyze fleas she collected for evidence of plague as she builds a greater understanding of threats to pikas in Colorado and consult with her mentor, professor Jory Brinkerhoff.