A scat-sniffing dog named Pinkerton

Joseph Orkin, a graduate student in anthropology in Arts & Sciences, won both the “audience’s choice” and “judge’s choice” awards at the St. Louis FameLab held Feb. 22, advancing to the national competition.

Joseph Orkin delivers his winning presentation at FameLab

FameLab is a science communications competition sponsored by National Geographic and NASA; it’s sometimes called the American Idol of science. Participants craft a three-minute talk on their research or a related topic, and if they survive a qualifying round, present it on stage before judges and an audience.

Orkin used the DNA from scat to see if critically endangered black-crested gibbons have become genetically isolated in China’s mountaintop forests, as terraced fields have moved relentlessly up the mountainsides. To find the scat, he enlisted the help of a sniffer dog named Pinkerton who had been trained by the Chinese police.

The first prize to be announced was the “audience’s choice,” which was awarded to Orkin. And then the judge’s choice was announced. Again it was Orkin, who was visibly startled.

“I thought once I won the audience’s choice, that was it,” he said later. “I just didn’t expect my name to be called again.”

The best part of the story? It took a lot of paperwork, but Orkin was eventually allowed to bring Pinkerton back to St. Louis where he now lives in retirement as a companion dog.


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