Font Size

content body

Font size

When Master of Landscape Architecture student Helena Starnes mentioned in conversation that she had met the celebrity lemur Zoboomafoo, her classmates at Auburn went wild.

“I immediately texted my sister and friends, and to this day, it’s actually something that I like to casually mention to people,” said Starnes’ former classmate Maria Elena Vanegas Perez. “I went to school with this amazing woman who met the real Zoboomafoo!”

Since she had never actually seen the famous lemur’s television show, which was produced by the Kratt brothers of “Wild Kratts,” Starnes didn’t realize anyone would be impressed.

“It didn’t sink in that Zoboomafoo was a celebrity,” she said. “It wasn’t until I told my classmates here that I realized I had met the top lemur of all lemurs!”

But more impressive than her run-in with the world’s most famous lemur is Starnes’ transformation from zookeeper to landscape architecture student.

As she prepares to graduate from the College of Architecture, Design and Construction this May, Starnes is reflecting on where her journey started and where she might go next, and she has found there is far more overlap in these two careers than most would think.


Armed with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Starnes began her career working with animals at Busch Gardens Williamsburg, an amusement park and zoo in Virginia.

“Busch Gardens has well-designed, high-quality exhibits and a very high standard of care,” she said. “They have a great emphasis on education and outreach, and the shows we did were designed to get people excited about these animals and funding conservation efforts.”

Starnes started out working with parrots, snakes and other small creatures like Madagascar hissing cockroaches, but after six years, she decided to move on to larger animals.

“I love creepy crawlies, so I thought it was fun,” she said. “They were great, but I was passionate about working with the animals who will develop relationships with you and challenge you a little more. That’s how I ended up going over to the wolves and the birds of prey.”

While her job was working with animals at the zoo, Starnes’ hobby at home was gardening, and she quickly found she liked working with plants just as much as animals. She decided to go back to school to learn more, enrolling in a landscape design program at a local community college, but a drop in enrollment during COVID-19 meant design classes were cut. 

With support from her family, Starnes found her way to Auburn’s Master of Landscape Architecture program, which has a path for students without undergraduate degrees in design. While she had taken art classes in high school and college, she did not have the same drawing or design experience as most students in her cohort, so she arrived on campus a semester early for extra classes to ensure she wasn’t completely overwhelmed her first year.

“For the most part, I was starting from scratch,” she said. “In that first year, it was a lot of work to wrap my head around this approach to design. But faculty members Emily Knox and David Hill are really excited to work with people in the beginning of their education, and they were a big help in those early semesters.”

As she progressed through the program, Starnes began to see the overlap between her former and future careers. She is especially interested in animal-plant interactions like pollination and seed dispersal. Now that she’s starting to make post-graduation plans, Starnes is focusing not just on her newly acquired design skills, but on the things that are truly important to her.

“I have always been really passionate about the environment in general and all its inhabitants,” she said. “I love looking at it, learning about it, being in it, getting muddy and seeing all the wonderful things out there. On paper, they look really different, but to me, the root motivation for pursuing these careers is the same.”

Love the outdoors? Students without a design background can complete the Master of Landscape Architecture program in just three years.

Learn more about Auburn's Master of Landscape Architecture program