Senior Abigail Slater has completed three internships, spent countless hours in the classroom studying environmental science and biology, and traveled to Mexico for a guest semester at the Kino Bay Center, but she isn’t stopping there.
This academic year, Slater is leading a research project to monitor birds in the Olivet area. With guidance from Leah Knapp, DVM, professor of biology, Slater is gathering field data, documenting her findings, drawing conclusions and identifying outcomes — giving her an unmatched, real-world research experience.
“In high school, I really enjoyed my science classes,” Slater said. “I realized I didn’t want to sit in an office; I had a passion to work for the environment. I knew I could make a real difference in our world.”
Slater is doing just that. Her local research on birds will help identify the human impact on species and habitats, contribute to online databases and provide a baseline for future student research.
“Birds are well recognized as indicator species, acting as sentinels for environmental problems that threaten other species, including humans,” Knapp said. “Compared to other animals, birds are relatively easy to find and identify, making them very useful in monitoring environmental concerns and human impact on habitats.”
To gather her data, Slater visits four collection sites each week, ranging from The University of Olivet’s Kirkelldel Biological Preserve to the downtown Olivet area, spending nearly an hour at every site documenting the birds she encounters by sight and sound. Woodland songbirds are the focus of Slater’s research, including a variety of sparrows, woodpeckers, flycatchers, wrens and warblers.
“I’ve been working on the project since August 2019,” Slater said. “I worked with a professional ornithologist in one of my internships, so I was able to learn how to organize data and structure research.
“The field research is really different than traditional homework. It’s certainly not just sitting at a desk. I’m not just documenting birds; I’m also finding mushrooms, moss and other animals and taking photos. I’m gaining a better understanding of the environment all around, not just the bird population.”
Knapp gained experience in bird censusing at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology and is thrilled to share her passion with Slater.
“Like Abbie, I am deeply dedicated to the understanding and protection of our environment, both here and worldwide — ‘think globally, act locally,’” Knapp said. “I am passionate about helping students learn about science, medicine/health and environment, which are all interwoven. Humans, as well as nature, are paying a steep price for our short-sightedness and carelessness in how we treat our resources, and we continue this at our own peril. I know Abbie embraces this concern and is focusing her career on it.”
Acting Locally, Impacting Globally
After graduation, Slater plans to work as a field biologist with a special interest in endangered species. With the skills she’s learning through her research, Slater is confident she can make a difference.
“I’m not sure what results my study will have, but I am excited to see what I find,” Slater said. “Ecosystems are facing invasive species, human disturbances have a negative impact on wildlife and other variables affect the world around us. I hope to spread my knowledge to inspire other people to love the environment.”
Slater will compile her findings in the spring of 2020. In the meantime, Knapp and Slater are keeping a watchful eye for patterns and indicators in the research.
“We can’t fix a problem if we don’t understand it, so my goal is to help students understand what is happening to our environment and how it relates to them in everyday life and their future careers, no matter what field they go into,” Knapp said.
Slater’s research is made possible by the Cutler Fellowship. Created to honor alumnus Dave Cutler ‘65, the fellowship is awarded to a junior or senior who excels in math, science or computer science. Students selected to receive this competitive merit award are required to submit a research proposal and make a substantial contribution in their field of study during their year as a fellow.
“The Cutler Fellowship helps students learn more about an area of particular interest and potentially contribute to the greater community and the learning of others,” Knapp said. “It’s also a great confidence builder, allowing students to experience the ups and downs of a research project without too much pressure. Part of the Cutler Fellowship is learning from one’s mistakes or being able to adjust techniques or approaches without serious consequences. The Fellowship is as much or more about the learning process as it is the results of the research.”
Computer science and mathematics major Justin Lavin was also awarded the 2019-20 Cutler Fellowship. Lavin is studying the use of artificial intelligence in self-driving cars. Read Justin’s feature.