For Wauwatosa native Danny Erickson, following in the footsteps of his late idol, Steve Irwin, was a far-away dream.

A 2013 graduate of Wauwatosa East High School, Erickson, 21, grew up watching nature documentaries and idolizing Irwin — an Australian wildlife expert, conservationist and television personality who died in 2006 after being pierced in the chest by a stingray barb.

Erickson always dreamed of traveling to Australia on his own, admitting he never thought it would be a realistic possibility.

But while pursuing a degree in wildlife ecology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, Erickson found a program that both related to his major and allowed him to travel to Australia. The program was called the School for Field Studies, an educational organization that explores the human and ecological dimension of environmental problems.

Alongside nearly 20 other students from across the United States, Erickson traveled to northern Queensland, a region near the northeastern part of Australia.

Erickson spent the first two months of his semester-long stay in class, studying rain forest ecology, natural resource management and socioeconomic issues. Although several sightseeing trips were sprinkled throughout the semester, the last part of his time abroad was spent studying tree kangaroos alongside a professor, he said.

A tree kangaroo is typically dark brown in color with a long, pendular tail and broad hind feet with large, curved nails. A tree kangaroo's face is similar to that of a bear and they primarily live in trees.

'They're kind of an iconic mammal in (Queensland), kind of like a koala in Australia,' Erickson said. 'They're an important species to conserve.'

Tree kangaroos are a threatened species due to habitat destruction and frequent attacks by wild dogs, Erickson said.

During the field study part of the trip, Erickson went door-to-door in Queensland conducting surveys. He asked local residents if they had seen any wild dogs in the area or if their own pet dogs had been attacked by wild ones.

'Everyone was fun to talk to,' Erickson said of conducting the surveys. 'Everyone could pick up I was an American.'

Other members of his research group studied the trees and soil types and some even went off looking for tree kangaroos, Erickson said.

'It's something you can easily spot,' he said, adding they often leave scratch marks on trees.

At the end of the semester, the students handed off their research to the professor and went their separate ways. Erickson said he spent some extra time in the country and traveled to the center of Australia and spent a week in Sydney.

'Studying abroad is a really great experience for people to do,' he said. 'I had the experience of my life. I made some really great friends.'

Erickson said after he graduates from college, he hopes to take a year off and return to Australia to conduct further research. He said he will eventually return to graduate school where he hopes to someday become an accomplished wildlife biologist working in conservation and managing natural resources sustainably.

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