|My hand with Harpy Eagle talons|
Ever since I was a tiny, human thing at the age of three, my imagination has been launching me into ornithology. As a toddler, I would wake up in the morning and invent a new bird to draw. As a 5th Grader, I would get home from school and pour through the same pages about birds of prey in my favorite field guide. As a 13-year old Middle-Schooler, I would finish homework and dinner in the evening and then drill myself with gull identification. Well guess what? I still have that childish imagination, still vaulting me into my passion and my future. Now, it's all about the act of being an ornithologist. I dream of waking up at insane hours to go and do field studies. I dream of nights up late analyzing DNA. I dream of days spent in isolation trying to figure out some variable in an experiment. I dream of meals spent with so much discussion of findings that I forget to eat. To put it simply, I really really want to be an ornithologist. But this summer, a got a bigger taste of it than I could have dreamed of. This summer, my dreams became real, more of a tangible path than some abstract aspiration.
|Looking into part of the bird collection in all its vast splendor|
I began my summer away from school at the Field Museum, interning there with some variation of 9 to 5 on weekdays. This was the ultimate experience of being in a scientific institution, and the thing that shocked me most was the people. Things were casual. Scientists are paid to think and to share ideas, and part of that is just, well, talking. And trust me, I'm good at that. I picked the brains of almost everybody in the Bird Division there, especially the curators. And in retrospect, the resources, all the available knowledge, though humbling to some, are like golden opportunities for curious people like myself. It's that kind of access to knowledge that will keep me coming back for years, maybe a lifetime.
|Spangled Cotingas in the collection|
I went on to teach about nature at Makajawan Scout Reservation for month after that. This wasn't so much an ornithological pursuit per se, but it ended up being a culmination of what I learned at the Field Museum: passion in learning for learning's sake. Discovery because it's cool. Investigation because it's fun. Flexing your brain is a process involving amazing people, mind-boggling resources and technologies, and it puts you in a powerful position: through science, you have the ability to learn things that have never been learned before...to know things, to understand things, totally and utterly novel to humanity. Why this passion isn't taught in science classes, I don't understand. Kids need to know why we do science in order to be inspired to be scientists.
|The bog at Makajawan Scout Res. Photo by Austin Coolidge|
This is where my teaching at Makajawan comes into play. In Bird Study, I taught kids about how you can go into the forest, and find something that has never been seen in that place before. In Oceanography, we learned that 66% of the planet--unexplored areas of the ocean--have never been seen by human eyes...something kids looking discover new stuff in the future get really into. In Fish & Wildlife Management, I emphasized that knowing as much as you can about topics relevant to your problem make you a really good problem-solver, and that's awesome. It all came together. And though my ultimate goal at Makajawan was to instill passion for discovery in the kids, I think the most profound effects were within myself...all from a few weeks interning in the Field Museum. I understand more clearly my mission in life, and I'm really lucky to have that kind of insight.
My mission was further focused at the 2013 AOU/COS Meeting, conveniently in Chicago. The Illinois Young Birder's Club graciously sponsored me fully to go to a day of the conference, and my goodness was it glorious. Hundreds of smart people were all over the place, discussing research, crazy experiences abroad, or funny stories of experimental screw-ups over coffee, a scientific necessity.
|Presentation from one of the plenaries|
And oh, all the research. After the fascinating plenaries to start the day, a stream of 15-minute talks, grouped by subject, in various places around the Palmer House took off. Though interspersed with breaks here and there, the day was one of constant brain expansion. Evolutionary biology, parasitism, rainforest ecology, methods in conservation, migration science, breeding ethology, systematics, etc etc etc. It was all there.
And all the talks were given in the format of research articles, which helped to outline scientific organization of information for me. It all came together to show how much there is to ornithology. There's so much more than keeping track of taxonomy or the latest ID tricks...every bird has many layers of fascinating biology, even ones like House Sparrow. There's so much to learn about every bird, how it interacts with the world, and its interaction with other species. And ultimately, it contributes more and more to our overall understanding of our world, every...little...but. Every bit of learning and discovery you do, even casual birding is important, is worthwhile, and is awesome. And everyone at this conference seemed to believe this with as much conviction as I did.
So from a personal level, beyond being fun and productive, my summer was something I'll be drawing off of for years, In the long-run, it helped me come to understand what I value, who I want to be, and what I want to share with other people. And it gave me more momentum, more ambition, moving into my future. So it looks like that childlike imagination I've had since I was a toddler might be something a little more far-seeing. Maybe it wasn't so childish. We could even call it foresight. And that...well...that's a pretty cool thing to discover.