Elana Paras stands beside an elephant in Thailand at the Elephant Nature Park. 

Courtesy of Elana Paras

Elana Paras has always loved animals. 

Born and raised in Tucson, this 21-year-old is a senior studying molecular environmental biology at the University of California, Berkeley. 

Except she's not actually in California right now. 

Paras plans to go into veterinary medicine, meaning she needs as much animal experience as possible. 

So for nine weeks this fall, she's in Mo'orea, an island in French Polynesia. 

What a way to pursue your goals. 

As part of the Berkeley research program, she's studying skinks, their thermoregulatory behaviors and how they choose habitats.

"Coming from Tucson, you're used to seeing reptiles in more open, sunny spaces as they try to get warmth to reach their preferred temperatures," she says. "And so I'm doing a lot of observations of their thermoregulatory behaviors like sunning, shuttling and burrowing." 

At Berkeley, she's focusing on animal health and behavior and plans to go to veterinary school after graduating. She wants to be a veterinarian. 

"I think I grew up really interested in the medical side of things but never wanted to do that on humans, and I really loved animals..." she says. "I think I keep coming back to veterinary medicine because there is that animal interaction." 

Paras spent several weeks this summer in Thailand with Loop Abroad working in a dog shelter and at an elephant sanctuary. 

At the Elephant Nature Park, Paras says she worked with elephants rescued from abusive situations, along with other animals including water buffalo, horses and cows. 

"It was cool to see veterinary medicine in a different country with different resources and processes and working with such large animals like elephants," she says. "I had to use these giant syringes and safety precautions working with such large animals." 

When she lived in Tucson, this Salpointe Catholic High School graduate volunteered with a Children's Museum Tucson's pet vet camp. In California, she cares for at least 50 species of animals at Berkeley's children's museum. She has also volunteered in cat and dog clinics. 

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A snake coils around Elana Paras' arm. 

"You don't realize it until you're with them, that it's an honor to work with a salamander and all these real animals that have their own lives and preferences, and it's cool to see," she says. 

She's pretty sure she has loved animals since the first grade, when her family got a Cockatoo named Cheeko. 

For other young girls interested in pursuing veterinary medicine, she has a few words of encouragement: "It is a difficult and competitive field, and there is a lot more to the career than just loving animals," she says. "It is important to understand that becoming a vet requires a strong interest in science and medicine in addition to a care for animals ... I always try to remember how much I care about animals and how much personally helping those animals means to me ... So that is what keeps me motivated."