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The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent

The Secret Perfume of Birds: Uncovering the Science of Avian Scent PDF

Author: Danielle J. Whittaker

Publisher: Johns Hopkins University Press


Publish Date: March 1, 2022

ISBN-10: 1421443473

Pages: 296

File Type: PDF

Language: English

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Book Preface

The bird was mocking me.
It was a beautiful Memorial Day weekend at an old-fashioned, lakeside mountain resort in Virginia. (In fact, it was the one made famous as Kellerman’s in the movie Dirty Dancing.) I was perched precariously on the side of a hill that sloped down to the lake, where I had been trying for hours to catch this particularly elusive dark-eyed junco. Her mate, clearly less crafty than she was, had flown into my large but nearly invisible net shortly after I set it up a few feet away from their nest. I had measured him, taken samples, and safely released him over two hours ago. But this female, who went by the catchy name of 2221-57423, seemed to have sniffed out the situation and had flown neatly around the net, easily evading capture every time she left or returned to her nest. I sighed and stared at a discarded Clamato can nestled among the pines.
I have never been particularly good at long-term planning. Mapping out an explicit five- or ten-year plan seems foolish to me because life never goes the way you think it will. I’ve found it better to have a general idea of what you’d like to achieve, and to then adapt to whatever unexpected events unfold along the way to your goal. Even if, like the male junco, you get trapped in a net and sampled for someone’s study, your eventual release may encourage you to carry on in a different direction.
People who want to succeed in academia are typically advised to follow a well-traveled path, with a plan in place from the beginning. First, you should already know by the time you’re in college that you’d like to be a scientist, and you should know what kind of science interests you. You should find an opportunity to conduct research in a lab while you are still an undergraduate, then know exactly what you’d like to pursue in graduate school and apply to work with a specific mentor. Once in graduate school, you need to carry out interesting, important, strategic research and publish your work before you graduate, which you must accomplish in six years or fewer. Then, you should have a postdoctoral fellowship already lined up, with clear plans for one or two years of research with another mentor. Finally, before this fellowship runs out, you should land a tenure-track position as an assistant professor and then spend the majority of your time writing winning grant proposals and training fabulous new graduate students and postdocs.
I did not do any of these things.
As an undergraduate at Emory University in Atlanta, I was a starry-eyed English major who understood nothing about how academia worked. I was valedictorian of my high school, with a perfect GPA, high standardized test scores, and a full scholarship to college. I wanted to be a professor of medieval English literature, and I assumed success in academia would follow the same formula as in high school: work hard, get good grades, then get the job you want. Also, I supposed that you would need to have some intriguing, original ideas—and I hoped that I would eventually develop some of those. But I was too shy and felt too far out of my element to ask for help. So, instead of actually meeting with professors and learning how academia worked, I simply followed the university’s written guidelines about how to complete all the requirements for your major and for graduation. It seemed straightforward enough. But at some point, I realized that I should know quite a bit more about life in medieval Europe than I could glean just from studying the literature, and I decided to expand my education with medieval art history and Latin classes. I spent my junior year abroad at Trinity College in Dublin, Ireland—my first time ever leaving the United States—and there I intensively studied English literature. It was a dream made real. Only I discovered that it was not, in fact, my dream. Once I was exposed to the centuries of interpretation and research that scholars had already published, I started to feel that there was probably nothing fresh and compelling to be said about Chaucer or Sir Gawain and the Green Knight. And even if new insights were still to be had, I didn’t think I was creative enough to have them.

When I returned home for my senior year, I felt confused and disenchanted with the route I had followed so far. I decided I needed to change everything, and I abruptly switched to a new major. Before my year abroad, I had fulfilled most of my science requirements with anthropology classes, and I had found them all interesting. Anthropology, as it is taught in the United States, is incredibly broad, encompassing cultural anthropology, biological anthropology, archaeology, and linguistics. In my senior year, I took fascinating courses to fill out the requirements for an anthropology major, including classes on nutritional anthropology, human sexuality, and—most important for the path I ultimately took—primate behavior and ecology. I loved learning about our closest living relatives, how they interact with each other, and how similar we are to them. I particularly loved gibbons, small monogamous apes of Southeast Asia with long arms who sing beautiful, mournful dawn songs.
When I graduated from Emory in 1996, I was no closer to figuring out what I wanted to do with my life than I had been at the beginning of college. I decided that academia probably wasn’t for me. Every summer during college, I had worked as an office temp, impressing my employers with my organizational skills and typing speed. When a financial printing firm in Atlanta offered me a full-time position as a typesetter, I took it. The job paid well, especially for someone just out of college. Unfortunately, it was boring as hell, and soon I wanted to be anywhere else. I immersed myself in nonfiction books about primate fieldwork and fantasized about going to African or Asian jungles.
I honestly have no idea why I suddenly decided I should spend years in tropical rain forests, sweating and hiking and getting bitten by mosquitoes. I was never outdoorsy as a child. I went camping a couple of times with friends, and sure, I wandered through the woods a bit on my own. But looking back at those times, I see no evidence of a budding young naturalist. I was, instead, indoorsy: I liked to read books and listen to music and watch television. I was not active—in the eighth grade, I failed gym class because I refused to participate. But I was dissatisfied at the prospect of living the mundane life that all my peers were embracing. I had no interest in desk jobs, real estate, or raising children. I wanted to travel and experience things that ordinary people never did—and these stories about fieldwork showed me a different way to live.

I surreptitiously began applying to PhD programs in biological anthropology. Why “surreptitiously”? I wasn’t ready to tell my parents. Though neither of my parents had a college degree, they had always pushed me to do well in school and pursue higher education. For the most part, this was a good thing, but sometimes they went too far. If I brought home a test with a grade of ninety-seven, my father would say, “What happened to the other three points?” At our celebratory dinner the day I graduated with my bachelor’s degree from Emory, my dad—who never finished high school—cheerfully exclaimed, “Now you just have to get your PhD!”
In that moment, it seemed that nothing I did would ever be quite good enough. Inside, I was devastated, and my immediate response was defensiveness. Throughout the following summer, I denied my growing unease, insisting that my office job was fine, that I didn’t need to get another degree, and that I just wanted to live a conventional life. And I tried to believe that it was true.
When I finally admitted to myself two years later that I wanted to go to graduate school, it felt oddly like failure. I told very few people and did not seek out advice. I applied to several graduate programs, but coming from my rather haphazard educational background, I didn’t really understand the system. The PhD program I was most interested in was the New York Consortium for Evolutionary Primatology (NYCEP), which combined training from the Anthropology Departments of Columbia University, New York University, and the City University of New York. I applied to all three universities, not caring which one I got into. Typically, if faculty members are interested in mentoring you as a graduate student, they invite you to visit and learn more about the program. But I didn’t know that. Instead, I arranged to take a trip with one of my closest friends to the city, and I contacted several professors in the program to let them know I would like to meet with them. Ultimately, my clueless persistence paid off: I was accepted into the graduate program at the City University of New York, as part of the NYCEP program. I even got a small fellowship, thanks to my good grades in college and high GRE scores.
As soon as my first semester of graduate school began, I worried that I had made a terrible mistake. The other students all seemed to have a stronger academic background, a better understanding of how things worked in graduate school, and clearer ideas about their research plans than I did. I vividly remember spending one evening in the lab with an array of primate and mammal skulls spread out before me, trying to figure out the difference between molars and premolars. Teeth play a very important role in identifying fossils, and I needed to learn how to identify them in my Evolutionary Morphology class. Molars, which are furthest back in the mouth (and are used for grinding and chewing), are larger and have more cusps than premolars. But alone in the lab, the worn, off-white teeth all looked the same to me. I burst into tears. I was sure that I would never be able to see the things that must be obvious to everyone else in the program. I was sure that I didn’t belong there.
Eventually, I did learn to distinguish between a molar and a premolar—and I also learned that I was most definitely not alone. None of the other graduate students felt like they knew what they were doing either. No one believed they belonged, and they all thought everyone else knew more. Even the arrogant know-it-all “mansplainer,” who enjoyed correcting professors when they misspoke (all programs have at least one), turned out to secretly fear he was inadequate.
I survived graduate school, although it took me seven and a half years to complete my degree. I was able to realize my dream of following gibbons in the tropical forests of Indonesia. I developed a research project on the evolutionary genetics and conservation biology of the Kloss’s gibbon, a small, endangered, and poorly understood ape found only in the Mentawai Islands of Indonesia. I spent a total of a year in the Indonesian rain forest, and several more years in the laboratory coaxing DNA out of gibbon poop. To pay the bills, I taught many undergraduate anthropology and biology classes as an adjunct lecturer, though the tiny paychecks barely covered the rent of our one-bedroom apartment in the Bronx. I spent another year in New York after I graduated, patching together part-time teaching gigs at multiple colleges while applying for full-time faculty and postdoctoral positions.

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