Carol Vleck from Iowa State, who studies penguins, will be seen on camera during program
2, when she'll take us on a tour of the Adelie colonies on Torgersen Island.
My project involves examining the physiological and hormonal bases of the "decisions"
that individual penguins have to make during the reproductive season. Like all penguins,
Adelie penguins must come to land to nest, forming monogamous pairs (for the most part). Since they forage only at sea, the birds must fast while they are in the nesting
colonies, sometimes for many weeks at a time. The eggs and young chicks must be guarded
continuously by one or the other parent because predators, particularly skuas, prey on unattended eggs and chicks. The parents must take turns foraging at sea and
returning with food to feed the chicks since there's nothing for the chicks to eat
on land. Consequently the proper coordination of behavior between the two parents
is crucial to successful reproduction. I want to understand why some birds manage to be very
successful parents and others are not. Many will come to the breeding colony and
then either fail to find a mate and start a nest, or will abandon the eggs or chicks
at some point.
Some personal background:
My background for this project stems from my combined interest in physiology and in
behavior. I have a Master's degree from UCLA for which I concentrated on animal behavior
and a Ph. D degree from UCLA for which I concentrated on environmental physiology.
Environmental physiologists are interested in how animals manage to survive and reproduce
in the "real world". Often environmental physiologists look at plants or animals
living under extreme conditions (like penguins fasting in the harsh climate of Antarctica). If we can begin to understand the adaptations that these animals have for dealing
with their environment, then we can see clearly how organisms in more moderate conditions
do the same.
Much of my research on bird behavior and physiology prior to this trip was actually
carried out in the deserts near Tucson, Arizona -- another harsh environment to live
in. The problems faced by animals in Antarctica and deserts are more similar than
one might guess. In both cases animal have to solve the same problems of living in an environment
with limited access to food and water, finding a mate, defending a territory, laying
the eggs, and taking care of the offspring.
My parents were both in "business" and yet five of their six children went into biology.
I don't know why I'm fascinated by biology and can't be bothered balancing my check
book. I think people should strive to find a career in which they do well and more
importantly what they like. I did well in all my science classes when I was in middle
and high school, but I didn't really discover that I loved field work until I was
in college. Then experiences in ecology and marine biology field trips convinced
me that there is so much diversity in how and where animals work that I didn't want to just
study white rats or chickens living in a lab for a living. I wanted to get out and
see the world. With work, luck, and persistence I've gotten to do field work everywhere from Australia to Central America and now to Antarctica. I like to stay home with
my family, too, but I make room in my life for my career and my family. It's sometime
tough and I count on my family and friends a lot for support.