Since my childhood, I have been interested in (some would say obsessed by) the natural world. The porch outside our small cabin in the Santa Cruz Mountains was occupied by an odd assemblage of cages and terrariums filled with the “beneficiaries” of my unending efforts to rescue injured and abandoned wildlife. My first patients were the victims of local cats. Even at 7 or 8 years old, I was able to provide appropriate conditions and feeding routines for a variety of young or injured birds, reptiles, amphibians, and mammals, successfully releasing them after my ministrations were complete.

As I grew older, I developed a strong desire to share my interest in natural history and conservation with others. In my teens, I developed and taught biology classes for our local 4-H club and I spent a year planning and obtaining permits to develop a large marine ecology exhibit for the Santa Cruz County Fair (see Informal Teaching). My early interest in wildlife was becoming focused on ecology and biodiversity, with teaching as a means of advancing conservation.
After graduating from high school, I decided to attend Cabrillo Junior College. Initially, I focused on early childhood education (ECE). Virtually all of the ECE curricula I developed was science oriented. I decided to transfer to the University of California Santa Cruz and complete an undergraduate degree in biology, with a long-term goal of completing a Ph.D.

While obtaining my BS in biology, I also sought out opportunities to do extracurricular field and laboratory research, both as a volunteer and as a paid worker. I volunteered to collect sea bird life-history data on Año Nuevo Island and Alcatraz Island for the Point Reyes Bird Observatory. For this project I also conducted laboratory analyses of marine bird diets. For the Wind to Whales Project, I volunteered as a marine mammal observer, conducting monthly transect surveys in the Monterey Bay Sanctuary. I also volunteered as a field assistant for two graduate students conducting research on the effects of an invasive competitor species (bullfrog) and two parasitic species (chytrid and trematode) on the survival rates of the threatened California red-legged frog. This research was conducted at Elkhorn Slough, south of Santa Cruz. In collaboration with a student partner, I expanded on the parameters of the original project by conducting independent research and co-authoring a paper on the trematode life stage which precedes amphibian infection. Finally, I was hired to conduct GIS analyses for a grant-funded project which analyzed the correlation between adjacent riparian habitat and the effectiveness of natural bird-based pest control on Sacramento Valley farmland. These extracurricular projects provided me with a welcome and more varied set of research experiences than afforded by my required university coursework.

After completing my undergraduate coursework, I wanted to work with a researcher on a longer term, more in-depth study in the tropics, an area which had inspired my interest during my earlier field course. I was hired by a UCSC professor and researcher for an NSF-funded project analyzing the role of bird and bat seed-dispersal on tropical forest recovery in early successional habitats. The project site was chosen specifically because it afforded an opportunity to conduct research in a location where the results of the research would help a local community (coffee farmers in a small town in Costa Rica). In collaboration with the principal investigator, I designed the research parameters for the portion of the study I would execute. I then spent three months in Costa Rica conducting the primary research. I also designed and conducted an independent project which analyzed bird-species specific seed consumption patterns, to further inform an ecological analysis of forest recovery potential.

I became particularly interested in systematics when working on my senior thesis. The larger project (of which my thesis was a part) was the design and compilation of a database of life history traits for 330 seabirds with the Island Conservation Project. The purpose of the project was to provide a comprehensive database of the life histories of seabirds worldwide to inform researchers, resource managers, and policy makers. (This database is scheduled to be published next year.) For my senior thesis, I decided to test the importance of controlling for phylogeny, and I found it to be significant for a majority of the life history correlations that I tested. I also found that I was limited in my ability to analyze life history correlations by the lack of fully resolved phylogenies for a majority of the seabirds in the database. Compiling a tree for those species with full data was gratifying. (I used the MESQUITE software package, including the PDAP module, for this work.) I am finding that researchers are increasingly using systematics data to more effectively address questions in conservation biology, e.g., in biodiversity, population genetics, and speciation (especially in rare or threatened taxa). For me, systematics work is an appealing combination of field work, lab work, and intellectual work, with the potential to contribute useful information to conservation efforts.

As I’ve described, my education has allowed me to study many species in a broad range of geographical locations from a variety of analytical perspectives. My current goal is to complete a Ph.D. program in Ecology and Evolution, with a focus on birds or herps as indicator species, to inform conservation efforts in tropical ecosystems. I hope to utilize both molecular systematics and population genetics to more fully understand the processes affecting species assemblages, phylogeographic patterns, and intra-species variation.


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