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Humming about bird research and outreach, with Alyssa Sargent

Alyssa Sargent (pronouns: she/her) is a PhD student at the University of Washington, USA, for which she studies hummingbirds in South America (one of the greatest projects she could possibly imagine!). Alyssa has experience working in bird research all over the world, as well as a passion for science communication, which she spends a lot of her time doing. Alyssa shares the steps she took on her journey in wildlife research and outreach as well as pointers to help you do the same!

Humming about bird research and outreach, with Alyssa Sargent | #itsawildlife
ALYSSA’S JOURNEY

From a young age, Alyssa always loved wildlife, with a particular obsession for penguins during her early years. After high school, Alyssa went on to study natural sciences during her undergraduate degree. However, it wasn’t until her third year when she took a behavioral ecology unit that she began to realize how fascinating bird brains in general are –

“They [birds] have so many interesting and unique behaviors… and I guess, for me it was realizing that you can actually study the decisions that animals make in the field and why they make them that blew my mind… I didn’t know that you could do that.”

The realization that you could study animal behavior byrunning around after them in the field was a game changer for Alyssa.

“Birds were really what grabbed my interest the most – they have such unique behaviors – and from there it just snowballed.”

Alyssa fast became obsessed with hummingbirds, and she emailed anyone and everyone she could think of in the hummingbird research world about opportunities. While she waited for the perfect grad school project to come up, Alyssa travelled the world working with birds on research projects: Fairywrens in Australia, to Storm-petrels in the Azores, and owl migrations in Canada. With these experiences under her belt, Alyssa started her PhD in 2021, working with hummingbirds as a part of the Behavioral Ecophysics lab.

STUDYING HUMMINGBIRDS

When we asked Alyssa “why hummingbirds?” she answered simply, they’re just the coolest of all the birds. Fair enough! As she was finishing her undergrad degree, Alyssa became deeply interested in the diversity, colors, size range, and weird feather adaptations that you see in hummingbirds. Although they are only found in the Americas, their range is expansive, from Alaska to the southernmost tip of South America.

“And they’re so cute – just these tiny little birds… so, in a way it was always hummingbirds.”

Alyssa’s project primarily aims to deploy new tracking technologies to study how hummingbirds move – technologies that are only now becoming possible. She explains –

“When it comes to tracking animal movement, we’re limited in terms of the animal’s size and what technology is available. Hummingbirds are so tiny and the tags to track their movements [automatically] have been too big up until now.”

The tags Alyssa uses are small radio transmitters applied as backpacks, which she is beginning to trial in Colombia. From there, she’ll use the tags to look at foraging strategies between hummingbirds, as their feeding is tied closely to their movement.

“This is true for all animals, but particularly hummingbirds, due to their high energetic requirements. So, I’ll be working with species called the Black-throated Mango and Sparkling Violetear, looking at whether or not they travel longer or shorter distances, whether they defend their resources or not, and other things that affect how they move.”

FINDING OPPORTUNITIES IN RESEARCH

Although it’s a vicious cycle to crack, Alyssa advises that the best way to get exciting research projects in grad school is by building your research experience. Not only will this expand your skills working with wildlife in different positions, but it will also expand your network.

“Start with what you know – ask your professors during undergrad if they know of any research experience. And once you start getting research experience, you can get plugged in with PhD students, banding stations, and other professionals and expand your network”

Although it can certainly feel challenging at times to pursue this career path, especially getting your foot in the door early on, Alyssa has advice:

“Wildlife biology can feel overwhelming or discouraging to get plugged into, but I think it’s a super rewarding career avenue to take, if you can stick it out… So, keeping that light at the end of the tunnel in mind, even in the challenging parts – it helps you learn more about yourself and your strengths and what works best for you.”

“So, I think keep it up. You guys, you’ve got this!”

FINDING WORK-LIFE BALANCE IN SELF-DRIVEN RESEARCH

One of the most challenging parts of working in passion-driven fields like ecology is knowing when to switch off or go home for the day as the line between work and your interests blur so easily. Couple that with the immense and sustained pressure of long-term research projects like PhDs and the stereotypes of student life and the requirement for self-motivation and you can see how quickly work-life balance can be eroded.

However, for longevity and sustainability for us ecologists working in this space, it is so important that we talk about balance to avoid burnout and ease the pressure (and unrealistic expectations). We asked Alyssa about her thoughts on this topic –

“That is a good question. I haven’t quite found the balance yet – I think grad school is definitely something you have to be really sure you wanna do, because it’s a lot of work. You’re juggling so many priorities and demands.”

Anxiety and depression are pretty high among grad students, relatively speaking. Normalizing balance could be a way of reducing this. Some ways to start improving this include:

  • Create your own schedule (you can block in breaks and non-grad school activities)
  • Use to-do lists to put your thoughts on paper, visualize your progress, and create achievable goals
  • Make sure you’re taking time off to do the things that you love outside of grad school or spending time with family, friends, and significant others

THE WORLD OF SCIENCE COMMUNICATION

Alyssa loves science communication and exercises her creative muscles in this space regularly.

“I love science communication. I think it is both really fun and really important.”

It’s all about sharing knowledge and conveying important messages of wildlife conservation in a way that resonates with different groups of people.

“That’s a really fun challenge, I like that a lot.”

Alyssa spends her time working on a diverse array of fun outreach projects regularly, including Skype a Scientist and her own website, which includes resources and advice for people interested in applying to grad school. She also contributes to more novel projects that raise awareness for avian conservation, including the supplementary materials for a hummingbird animation created in collaboration with TED-Ed, writing ornithological articles for the magazine Current Conservation, and a life-sized hummingbird board game alongside the Burke Museum of Natural History and Culture. For more details on these amazing projects, tune into Alyssa on the podcast.

“All of these examples are just to show you can do anything when it comes to science communication, which is really cool. I mean, you can design games, you can write, you can create new materials for lessons, and if there’s not something that exists, you can make it happen!”

“I think outreach is just a total gold mine of creativity.”

There are so many conservation and advocacy benefits to creating outreach for nature. With the case of hummingbirds for example, as pollinators, they are being hit hard by anthropogenic and climate changes that affect the timing of how flowers are blooming, which affects their foraging and migrations. Science communication helps us to spread awareness of these issues, and figure out the best avenues to protect these tiny and beautiful birds.

KEEP IN TOUCH

Want to hear more from Alyssa? Tune into the podcast to listen to our conversation. You can follow her adventures on Instagram @the.bird.girl or check out her website to find out more about Alyssa’s field experiences, science communication materials, and advice for aspiring biologists.

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