Why I love what I study

I originally wanted to call this ‘why I love birds’ but I realized that my urge to write this comes not really from my love of all things with feathers, but from my passion for what I do, and the sadness I sometimes feel when others try to tell me my passion is bad, or don’t have passion of their own towards their own science.

Whenever someone makes a snarky comment at me like

You could have picked a non-bird paper, there are other animals/systems


You choose birds because its easy, real science is done [insert other science here]

I at first get mad. Not throwing things around the room mad, but face a little scrunched up, wanting to spew preschool level mean names at you mad (like ‘you poopey booger butt face’).

I don’t study birds because I think they are the only things out there, I don’t study birds because its easy (its NOT), I don’t study birds because I think its the only science worth doing. I study birds because when I was 8 a wonderful retired high school history teacher named Tom Kashmer was kind enough to let me tag along with him bird banding, and those birds grabbed a hold of me and have NEVER let go.

Last week I drove 12 hours across New Mexico, Northern Texas and Oklahoma, not the most thrilling of drives, and the entire time I was thinking about birds, its not a choice for me.

I think other critters (be they very big or very small) are also REALLY COOL, and so are other systems, other branches of science, other branches of human knowledge, etc. etc. My brothers are all computer/engineering types, and I love hearing about the work they do. My mom is an accountant, and what she does is awesome as well (even if I don’t understand most of it :). We need people who study and love all kinds of things, and my thing is birds.

I love studying birds because they are dynamic and interesting, they live most everywhere, overcome crazy challenges, migrate thousands of miles, have crazy behaviors, and are also really important for the continued functioning of our ecosystem. I love science, and have already written a bit on that.

Despite what some scientists have told me (I hope they were joking) the world would be a much different place if all the birds disappeared, and not in a good way. Just like if all the fish disappeared, or all the insects, or all the trees, each one is very important.

I love birds because they take me to other places, they experience things I’ll never see and do things I can never do. They are full of mystery, even if they are studied quite well relative to other taxa, and they capture my imagination.

I love doing outreach with birds because a little songbird in my hand can break down even the coldest grumpy adult heart, and brighten the eyes of young and old alike. I hope that interacting with these birds makes everyone appreciate the wildlife around them more, not just the bird, and we talk about other critters in all of our programs.

Birds are important historically and culturally for many people, and studying them in that light adds additional layers of awesome complexity to my work as an ornithologist.

In a world where science is becoming more and more system based, with less and less emphasis placed on identification and taxonomy and geeking out of your favorite organism I am proud of my passion. The comments from others still often sideline me, and make me wonder why they do what they do. Parts of my job are downright boring or exhausting and if I didn’t love the big picture of my job and have this burning desire for bird conservation I would have jumped ship long ago [trust me I could be quite good at things that pay much better].

I sometimes worry that my passion might alienate people, but my hope is that it encourages them. Grad school doesn’t have to defeat you, you can be excited about your organism, your system, your science.

So, love what you study, be passionate about it, tell others about it, and actively avoid those who try to suck you down with their ‘serious real science’ babble. Bird conservation is science, theoretical work on tiny things is science, figuring out how to build bridges, treat the common cold and any thousand of other things are science too. Embrace it, love it, SHARE YOUR PASSION WITH THE WORLD!

Written on March 31, 2015