Christopher Learned has been at the U. of I. as a laboratory animal specialist for nearly 14 years, but the most recent year has been especially challenging.
That's because in May his wife Megan had twins - a boy and a girl - but both were born prematurely at 24 weeks by emergency Caesarean section. The couple also has a 4-year-old daughter, Alivia.
It turned the summer into a time of chaos as the couple divided time between work and hospital, and occasionally sleep.
The babies are doing better now and they are both home after an extended stay at the neonatal intensive care unit at Carle Hospital. They still have a long road ahead of them, but the experience has left Learned with a blessed feeling that extends to the people he works with through his job with the Division of Animal Resources.
He said he's lost count of the number of people who helped him through a very trying time.
"I've been in and out of work since May and the support I've been receiving from my department has been amazing," he said. "People have gone out of their way to ask about the babies and what they could do to help us get through this. It's been a busy year, but it's also been a real blessing."
The experience also reminded him what a special place the U. of I. is and how he's enjoyed every minute of his employment on campus.
"I jumped around from job to job before I came here," he said.
He was working at a warehouse when a phone call came to the house informing him of a job opening at the university. The call was meant for his brother, but Learned ended up with the job.
"All I knew is they needed somebody to work with animals," he said. "He called to see if my brother was interested, but he had just started a new job. I was interested and decided to apply."
Learned started as part-time help and quickly learned the job was more than just working with animals.
"I had no idea how in-depth it was and how many details and regulations you have to follow," he said. "It's very important we maintain everything at that extra high level."
The caretaker job includes checking the health of the animals, making sure they have enough food and water, and ensuring the cages and research areas are kept clean. As a lab animal specialist, it is Learned's job to oversee the daily operations of his assigned facility. Learned said he works closely with his supervisor to ensure every detail has been covered.
"The policies and regulations we follow are to maintain that high level of cleanliness and ensure that the animals are being cared for properly," he said. "The main focus is to sterilize the equipment, and then we use industrial power sprayers on the walls so we don't miss a hair."
The animals he cares for include cats, dogs, swine, sheep, mice and rats.
He has been based at the Veterinary Medicine Basic Sciences Building for the past year, but has worked at other locations on campus, including the Institute for Genomic Biology and the Edward R. Madigan Labs. In all there are about 40 animal caretakers at various campus research facilities, with six caretakers at Vet Med.
Learned said he's proud to work at the U. of I. knowing that his small role is so important to the research being conducted.
"I like working with the animals and the people," he said. "I work with some of the brightest, but also the nicest, people around. It's really amazing here. Everybody's willing to take the time to speak with you and everyone's always willing to explain what they're working on and what they're trying to accomplish."
Learned, who lives in Rantoul, grew up on a farm in Penfield, Ill., where he helped care for livestock and did the other chores required of farm children.
Despite the rural existence, between farm work and three brothers, there was always something to do, he said.
"Our closest neighbor was a half-mile down the road, so it wasn't like we could just go to the playground like most kids would," he said. "If we wanted to do something we'd just say, 'Let's go down to the river and see what kind of trouble we can get into.' "
Despite that early experience, he said being an animal caretaker at the U. of I. is far different from being a farmhand. "What you do on the farm is different, because on the farm, you don't really worry that much about things getting dirty," he said. "They're a little more particular here."
Learned is taking courses at Eastern Illinois University in an effort to finish a bachelor's degree in organizational and professional development.