How I got here

There are pictures of me geeking out about birds since I was quite small. Those who knew me even in passing as a kid are unsurprised where I ended up. I have been incredibly fortunate along the way to be guided mentored and at time shoved by some very key people in my life.

I grew up out in rural Ohio on my Opa’s (grandfather in Dutch) farm. It was a perfect place to grow up, 100 acres of fields, stream and forest to explore, play on and explore. My brothers (there are four of them) and I invented hidden countries, built boats, tried and failed to catch fish and explored. My earliest scientific memories are when my mom let me bring a bunch of stream critters home and put them in an aquarium for the summer, doing a science fair project with the help of my aunt, a chemistry professor, to show that the stream we played in wasn’t as toxic as my dad thought, and going bird banding with local retired High-school teacher Tom Kashmer.

Tom lived just a few miles away and thanks to being homeschooled I got picked up more mornings than not and taken along to check rail traps, bluebird boxes and mist nets. Through Tom I got involved with Black Swamp Bird Observatory where I learned even more about what field work entailed and diligently volunteered on a weekly basis all through middle and high school at the banding station. I was and am incredibly lucky to have very supportive parents who helped me do all of these things. I grew up in an single income home, my dad was an auto mechanic, but he probably should have been an engineering if only he’d done his homework in high school. Science was valued in our home, as were all forms of learning and my dad got up early for years to drive me to the banding station before he went to work.

I graduated high school in 2008 and went to Michigan Technological University in the Upper Peninsula of Michigan for my Bachelor of Science in Wildlife Ecology and Management. I knew I wanted to study birds, and I knew I wanted to learn hands on and be part of undergrad research, Michigan Tech offered me all of that. My father passed away from cancer the summer before I started college and my first year is mostly a haze in my memory, dealing with normal first year student issues and the loss of my dad was tough, luckily I quickly made good friends, got working in a good lab, and had supportive grad students and faculty to guide me.

Throughout undergrad I worked in seven different labs, was a teaching assistant for three classes and worked four other part time jobs, many of them at the same time. To say I was busy was an understatement, but between that and a generous scholarship I made it through undergrad despite out of state tuition. I spent a lot of time in undergrad struggling with what I wanted to do. I saw this big need for people to crunch data, especially the data that sits around in filing cabinets, and I slowly started to realize that could be something I could be good at.

I came into college wanting to be a ‘field biologist’ (though I’m still not sure I really knew what that meant). Leading a field crew working on Golden-Winged Warblers in summer 2010 was what helped push me towards grad school and not just floating around the country banding birds for the rest of my life (something I still dream about). I learned the highs (and lows) of leading science, and found that I liked it. It also prepared me well for my current work, since both projects require constantly being on the move and sleeping in a difference place every few nights while also doing solid field science. By the end of that summer I knew I wanted to go to grad school and my professors pushed me to go straight through since I already had been banding birds for 8 years and had lead a field project. I knew I wanted to work on bird migration and in wetlands and so I started contacting everyone I could find who did that kind of research.

I graduated in December 2011 and headed off to Hawaii for a seasonal position on the Big Island banding birds. I learned more on that job than I ever expected both about science and how to science and myself. While I was in Hawaii I got accepted to the University of Arkansas, for a PhD! Not what I expected (I was looking for a M.S. position) but after some thinking and talking with my undergrad advisor, Dr Joe Bump I accepted. After a short stint doing outdoor education in Michigan at Kellogg Biological Station that summer I headed to Arkansas to start my PhD.

Looking back going basically straight from BS to PhD wasn’t the absolute best decision in the world. The first year was very very rough see my advice to my first year self here, I was 22, and had no idea what was going on. But thanks to some solid mentoring from my undergrad advisor, and some dear friends I kept with it. I’m still not sure what I ‘should’ have done, but this is what I did. Now here I am, at the end of my fourth year, hopefully <12 months from being done.

I’ve been rather hesitant to write this all down since some in the past haven’t reacted well to this story. While I do work hard and am not dumb much of my success, especially early is is because I got very lucky. I was very lucky to know what I wanted to do from a young age. I was lucky to grow up near people who could help me explore that and I was lucky to have parents who supported me in every way they could. All of that luck is also full of privilege, growing up with two parents, in a loving home, being homeschooled, etc, etc. Some hear about my path into ecology and don’t care for it because of this and I get that. I’m not sure what advice to give people sometimes since my path though not totally straight isn’t normal. I am here because when I was 8 Tom Kashmer put a warbler in my hand and I felt its heart beat and I wanted to know everything there is to know about it. I am here because when I was 12 he put a rail in my hand, and I fell in love. I am here because Amber Roth (now faculty at U Maine) picked me to run a field crew and taught me how to science. I am here because Joseph Bump held my hand through my senior thesis and has encouraged me ever since. I am here because birds grabbed a hold of me and will not let go. I love what I study and I Love Science and I hope I can use the advantages I’ve had to pull up as many as I can behind me, while breaking down barriers as I go. I am here because my Dad loved science and being outside and he and my mom instilled that in all of us. Daughters of auto mechanics and stay at home moms aren’t suppose to get PhDs, but here I am, feeling very lucky.

  • Auriel
Written on May 24, 2016