Tell me a little bit about what you are currently doing.
Here at grad school I am involved in science and conservation. It is not always easy to make the biggest difference on your own. You have to get the degree, make the connections, or learn more. I am here for all of the above.
I have always been concerned about the issues of balance in humans and their environment. And for that balance that doesn’t always just mean nature. I like debating about morals and stuff. I like to think that I follow most of them. My focus is on birds. Birds are very fragile creatures, at the same time, very pretty.
What fascinates you about birds?
When I look them I like to think that I see things that ordinary people do not see. For better or for worse, when I see a bird I see something that is very different than me.
They fly, they have feathers instead of hair, they have shape, they are dinosaurs, and we have been separated from them evolutionary for half a billion years. And I like that about them.
We have things in common, but the differences are where it is really nice. I like that. That’s why I am attracted to birds. They are a way for me to get involved, preserving the things that are less obvious in the world, the more subtle, quiet things in the world. I am not the first person to be attracted to such a mission.
When did you first get interested in birds?
My dad really likes dinosaurs. He is a scientist too. He never held back the fact that they are ancient birds. Where I grew up there were a lot of birds. Notice the past tense. I am not there anymore. We used to see them, sometimes very charming birds. That is when I was nine or something. To some extent I was a nature boy, but not more than other people.
I think most of us that work in field biology, that work with other animals, or the outdoors, there is a form of escape. Whether it is a lack of social skills, or a empathy we don’t know how to direct into humans. I find that it is easy to direct it when we are not around other people. That is a great exercise, of loving, unconditionally. Just by observing.
You mentioned that you sometimes see things in a world differently that other people do not. What do you mean by that?
I mean that everyone sees the world differently. From my point of view, there is probably a billion things that I see or miss or other people might see or miss. When I see a bird, I can see its meaning evolutionarily or see how it is different than other animals. For others sometimes it is hard to see pidgeon and see it how it is charming. But I do. I see beauty or intrigue. I look at it and see its uniqueness.
Scientists in the field, perhaps other scientists are looking for unconditional relationships that you can have with nature. That comes with the exercise we do with our minds, when we try to look at things through other people’s eyes, or in this case other animals eyes. There are many things that you can’t solve with just logic. I feel for humans and I feel for other animals. I feel that many other people do because they have cats and dogs.
And when I put myself into another’s point of view, and I think about what the bird means: evolution, behavior, stress, and things that drive them, it is easy for me to them as something I care about. If it is something that I see that is not cared by other people, it makes it more urgent.
Could you describe a little about what you are doing? What is it like being a masters student?
As a masters student, my project right now you don’t get the immediate satisfaction of changing people’s minds or changing the world. That’s generally how it is in science. Sometimes it is hard to make a difference that you can see.
I am here more than anything else for the training. I am glad that in my training that I can make a difference to some degree. You want to do work and gain education at the same time.
The goal is not something as simplistic as making more money or something... not to diminish the importance of money, but is very one dimensional. I do feel as if I am learning and seeing myself more ready to do the work that I imagine I really want to do - which is doing more work in the field and problem solving, because what you see and how you analyze what you actually see.
Working in the field being out there in the field and among the trees, it makes for better science and makes for a better mood if you are driven by what you care about. The most satisfaction is if I will get if I will be able to make permanent changes that will allow biodiversity there for future generations or whatever it is to come.
What is the most rewarding part of what you do?
One of the greatest satisfaction I have gotten to this day was just working with conservation related issue was just working bird rehabilitation under a license - rescuing injured birds, or those that have been injured by human activity. It is kind of nice. You aren’t making the biggest difference in the world but you are you see the results because they are really tangible.You learn so much by being immersed, saving one bird at a time raising young birds.
The most part of the promising satisfaction in grad school has been the intellectual part. Learning the new part of science and how it works, everything from statistics to ornithology.
When did you did rehabilitation, who did you do it with? How does that contrast with now?
Rehabilitation I did when I was in Florida. It was just volunteering, I learned a lot and had the trust of the rehabilitator. That was during the summer.
Now what I am doing is much more big picture. My undergrad was all classes in biology and genetics. Here I have my own experiment that I am running as part of an overarching experiment that my advisor runs. I focus on the toxicants we have all around us, specifically mercury.
Mercury unlike some other toxins, stays in the environment,it is pretty nasty. Birds around contaminated areas, will unfortunately start eating the food that has the mercury in it. That starts affecting the birds, but specifically with reproduction. You can't reproduce you are extinct. We are doing lab work. We are seeing how mercury affect the environment outdoors and simulating it indoors inside a lab, and look at how well birds reproduce versus birds that don’t have those toxins.
What would be the next steps in the process if you found it affected the bird’s reproduction?
This is basically all about conservation and money basically. We are trying to figure out how the mercury problem works. It is widespread and all over the world. Until now our work focused on repairing and helping populations, picking out mercury out of the river. That focused on areas that were contaminated. But one of the aspects of what I am looking at is that might not be the full picture. Right now we are looking at how birds might carry the effects of mercury even after it has left the bird’s system.
Imagine you can have mercury in your blood and in your system, you have a range of problems. Now that the mercury left your systems, you still have problems because of permanent damage. We try to tease apart the difference permanent problems and temporary problems, called developmental stress. That can change how we look in the environment. We now not only want to focus on contaminated areas, but also these permanent damage.
Do you have any advice for people interested in the same thing as you?
If you are interested in fieldwork, biology, and ecology, there are two options you can do to help yourself. Get a minor in statistics or get a bachelors in statistics with a minor in biology.
Definitely do a gap year. Do you ever remember a year you weren’t in a educational framework? I would totally travel. I am not like other people. I am sure there are types of people where a gap year would hold them back, but I don’t think that is true for most people.
I can tell you the best experiences are where you throw yourself into cold water. Being alone in the world is not as grim as it sounds. You will meet people. You are just throwing yourself into the randomness, it is scary I guess but it is totally not worth paying attention to that fear. In the end it is awesome, you meet people, you make decisions, and that feeling is priceless.
Yeah that is my advice.