5 Questions for a Scientist: Ecologist and Avian Field Biologist Allyson Jackson

The gap between the science classroom and a real-life career in the sciences can seem distant for some students. The 5 Questions for a Scientist interview series was created to bridge this gap! We aim to inspire students to pursue careers in the sciences by showcasing the incredible diversity of STEM careers by talking to scientists themselves. See all of the interviews here.

Get to know Allyson

Occupation: Assistant Professor in Environmental Studies
Institution: SUNY Purchase College
Field: Avian field biology
Focus: Mercury contamination in bird food webs

Allyson is an assistant professor in environmental studies at SUNY Purchase College in New York, where she teaches courses in ecology, conservation biology, and biostatistics. She holds an undergraduate degree in biology from Juniata College in Pennsylvania, an M.S. from the College of William and Mary in Virginia, and a Ph.D. from Oregon State University in Oregon. She has worked at the Tracy Aviary in Salt Lake City and as a wildlife research biologist for the Biodiversity Research Institute in Maine, researching mercury in forest songbirds.

Allyson believes in the power of good science communication. You can get to know more about her on her website or follow her lab on Facebook (@JacksonEcoLab) and Twitter (@allysonkjackson). She also has a dog named Ben who keeps his own active social media profile (Instagram: @benthedogBTD).

1. Explain what you do in your work in one sentence (or two!).
I consider myself an avian field biologist. I study mercury contamination in bird food webs, looking at how mercury moves from aquatic bugs to the birds that eat those bugs. 

2. When did you first become interested in your field?
I remember exactly when I realized I wanted to be a field biologist. I took an Ecology class in college where we got to design and carry out our own original field project. I remember thinking it was just so cool that I got to notice something in nature that interested me, come up with a question, and then go run around outside to get data to answer that question. It was just so exciting that I could use this scientific process to understand nature, which seemed impossible to understand. I was hooked on field research!

3. What is your favorite part of being a scientist or of science in general?
Every time I catch a bird and get to see them up close, I am reminded what an honor it is to do what I do (even though I still hate getting up before sunrise!). Now that I’m a professor, I think my favorite part is working with students and seeing them have life-changing experiences in field research, just like I did.

4. What is a typical day like for you as a scientist?
During the school year, I spend a lot of time interacting with students, preparing lectures, and working on my research at my computer. But during the field work season (usually summer for me), I will be up before dawn to get to field sites to sample bugs and catch birds.  

5. Do you have any advice for young people interested in science today?
It's hard work but don’t be scared away by that. Start early and try to find as many opportunities as you can—even if it means buying a field guide and learning every plant in your backyard. Every field biologist had to start somewhere and you never know when a learning opportunity could be something that jumpstarts your entire career!


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