AOS 2019: Celebrating Women in Ornithology

Last month I took leave from my internship at the Alaska SeaLife Center and traveled to Anchorage to attend the 137th Annual Meeting of the American Ornithological Society from June 24th through 28th. Taking place in a different U.S. locale every year, Anchorage was the northern-most conference in AOS history! 

As an undergraduate student and relatively new conference-goer, I was blown away by the approximately 800 attendees, which included students, presenters, exhibitors, and ornithologists from across the nation.

The over-arching AOS conference theme was Birds on Edge: Dynamic Boundaries, which recognized Alaska’s arctic birds and their dynamic connections around the world. The Bar-tailed Godwit (shown on the program above) was the ambassador for this theme, as it breeds in Alaska and unites the northern and southern hemispheres through the longest nonstop migratory flight of any known bird species. The conference symposia focused on addressing the scientific challenges faced when attempting to study and conserve our globally shared species.

However, there was another theme that I’d like to highlight in this blog post.  The AOS conference made an immense effort to celebrate women and gender diversity in ornithology in honor of the recent passing of Dr. Brina Kessel (1925-2016), who “blazed new trails for women in professional ornithology.”  Throughout her career, Brina defied gender barriers to become an ornithological researcher, professor, and dean of the College of Biological Sciences and Renewable Resources at the University of Alaska Fairbanks, where she led studies concerning the zoogeography of birds in the Alaskan alpine, arctic tundra, and taiga. After her retirement, Brina became the first woman elected to the American Ornithologists’ Union Council. Brina truly lived to be an “exception to all rules.”

Dr. Brina Kessel

The keynote speaker for the conference was Caroline Van Hemert, an Alaskan biologist, author, and modern-day adventurer who continued this theme of girl power as she recounted her experiences completing a 4,000 mile self-powered journey through the Alaskan wilderness on foot as well as by pack raft, canoe and ski. Caroline recently published her debut book, The Sun is a Compass, in which she shares how this expedition helped her rediscover her love for birds and find new inspiration as a scientist.  Caroline currently works as a research biologist for the USGS Alaska Science Center and has conducted extensive studies on Alaskan seabirds in response to a variety of conservation threats. As a true explorer, Caroline encourages people to push limits and ask questions.

Dr. Carolina Van Hemert

The conference went on to feature a diversity reception and a special symposium called Breaking through Biases: What We’ve Learned from Female Birds, which highlights research studies conducted on female birds and hits on why having diverse perspectives can lead to a more comprehensive understanding of avian biology.

ASLC Women of Science

During the poster and paper sessions, some amazing women represented the Alaska SeaLife Center’s science department!  

Hard at work at the ASLC and in the field studying seabirds

I had the opportunity to  give an oral presentation in the Undergraduate Symposium titled The Use of Thermal Imaging for the Study of Seabirds in Alaska: Implications for Management and Conservation about my ongoing research that takes place right here in the Kenai Fjords National Park and the Chiswell Islands of the Alaska Maritime National Wildlife Refuge. This project is affiliated with Christopher Newport University in Virginia, and I’ve been in Alaska during the summers of 2018 and 2019 to collect data during my “off” days from my ASLC eider husbandry and research internships.

Angelica Reed presenting her work on Eastern Bluebirds

The Alaska SeaLife Center was also represented by research intern Angelica Reed, who presented an exceptional poster about her work at East Carolina University in North Carolina studying Eastern Bluebirds and their nesting behaviors.  Research Associate, Sadie Ulman, also gave a short but successful lightning-talk about the spectacled and Steller’s eider molt dynamic study that takes place at the Alaska SeaLife Center.

Overall, AOS 2019 proved to be an awesome week of sharing science, networking, celebrating diversity in the field of ornithology, and showing the world what Alaska has to offer!

Written by: Emmylou Kidder, ASLC Research Intern

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