Many years into my career as a field-based evolutionary biologist, I love to share what I have discovered with others.
The Long and Winding Road
When I give talks, people are often curious to know the details of how I came to do what I do in life, and to study what I study. I tell my life story (!) below with the belief that many students will find some of themselves in my experience, and see that it has been a long, fullfilling, but not necessarily straight line from where I came from to where I am now, and this road has been influenced by many wonderful and inspiring people along the way.
Small Town Neighborhood “Kid," Horse Lover, Science Dreamer
I was born in Rutland, Vermont in 1969, and grew up in a small town in upstate New York called Alfred. The town has ~2000 residents, and my high school graduating class had 66 students, from Alfred and the neighboring town of Almond.
Like many children I had an early love of animals; in my case, horses, especially. I liked to draw (again, mostly horses). In high school my Uncle Jay gave me the book “Cosmos” by Carl Sagan, and this book captured my imagination and excited me about science in general.
As I went through high school, I loved all the sciences (hmmm, yes, I was pretty geeky), and I also loved nature, hiking around the fields and woods behind my neighborhood. My high school biology teacher, Mr. Lloyd, especially inspired me, and the possibility of combining science AND nature in a career in biology seemed like the right path for me.
Student of Animal Behavior, Evolution, and Comparative Anatomy
I enrolled in Cornell University in 1988, and got my Bachelors of Science degree in 1992. I originally went to Cornell interested in classical animal behavior and a field called “behavioral ecology”—roughly speaking the study of how an animal and its behaviors are adapted to, or beneficial in, its environment. Somewhere along the way, most notably in a lecture by Tom Seeley in the class of Animal Behavior, I was introduced to the idea that the behaviors we see today had evolutionary origins in earlier behaviors, and this concept really amazed me. For instance, the complex honeybee “waggle dance” (which honeybees use to tell their hive-mates how far away and in what direction good sources of nectar are) existed in simpler forms in close relatives, and if you look at enough relatives, you can piece together how the whole complex waggle dance evolved. How neat is that?
Likewise, in another class, the Functional Morphology of Vertebrates (a class I can admit now that I didn’t exactly know what it meant when I enrolled, but I knew it had to do with animals and evolution), l learned from two other particularly inspiring teachers—Deedra McClearn and Karen Reiss—how different parts of the bodies of animals (animals like ourselves, for instance), had origins in body parts like those found in other animals. For instance, you can trace the origin of our ear bones back to the gill arch of sharks. This was just amazing to me.
Bird Watcher, Nature Lover
I graduated from Cornell more interested then ever in evolution, but not yet ready for graduate school. I happened to take a temporary job at the Cornell Vertebrate Collections. Here, curator Kevin McGowan took me under his wing and introduced me to natural history collections (i.e., carefully cared-for collections of stuffed animals), birds, and bird watching. I remember seeing a small, delicate and beautiful, blue-and-white striped bird sitting on his desk one day. I wondered what it was doing on his desk instead of in the collection where it belonged, and when I saw the tag on it, I understood. It said the bird was from Binghamton, NY, a town not 60 miles away. Clearly this exotic bird was from Colombia or Borneo or some equally exotic place, so the tag was wrong and needed fixing. That shows you how much I knew; it was a Cerulean Warbler, a local bird that I had never heard of. Experiences like this set me on fire to discover all the local birds around me, and my bird-watching years started in earnest.
In the three years after graduating from Cornell, but before entering graduate school, I traveled, worked temp jobs, camped, and bird-watched, mostly in lovely, wild Arizona. These were some of the most free, empowering, and wonderful years of my life. I went from not knowing what a warbler was, to having seen over 500 different kinds of birds in the United States. Each species was a personal and celebrated discovery.
At some point I became ready to go back to school. I wanted to continue my studies, and I knew better now what I wanted to do. I wanted to study birds (like a lot of other students), I wanted to travel (preferably to the Neotropics, like a lot of other students), I wanted to do behavior and field work (like a lot of other students), and I wanted there to be an evolutionary anatomical or morphological component (like very few students).
This list of preferences allowed me to identify just the right number of professors to apply to work with. I happened across Rick Prum at the University of Kansas (KU). At the time, he was a relatively new, young, professor, and only had one graduate student. I remember first meeting him when he was a guest speaker at Cornell; we had an appointment to meet before his talk, and I asked a young-looking, grad student in the hall if he knew what time it was; that “grad student” was Rick, also looking for the room we were meeting in.
I enrolled at Kansas, excited to (1) work with Rick on what sounded like a perfect dissertation topic on manakins (small, colorful songbirds) and the evolution of their wing sounds, and (2) be part of a growing museum program at KU that conducted collecting expeditions headed by Mark Robbins—one of the world’s most knowledgeable ornithologists on birds of the Neotropics, and an all-around great guy. While at Kansas, I both got to initiate research on manakins (that enabled me to travel to Ecuador, Peru, and Costa Rica), and I also got to collect birds for the museum collection in Guyana and Paraguay. Thus, my graduate years included a wonderful mix of birds, evolutionary biology, museum science, travel, and field work.
Ornithologist, Evolutionary Biologist, Curator
In 2002, I started at Cornell University as Curator of Birds and Mammals in the Museum of Vertebrates. In this role my job has been to continue developing my research program; and manage, administer, and grow the specimen collections. I have continued exploring the interesting biological details of the Club-winged Manakin’s biology; this has allowed me to generate hypothesis of how they make wing sounds, and to use laser vibrometry to determine the acoustic properites of the feathers. I've used CT scans of manakin museum specimens. These scans resulted in both the cool skeletal images found in this site, and the discovery of unique, massive solid wing bones in the Club-winged Manakin. Coming soon are more morphological and evolutionary analyses, on not just the Club-winged Manakin, but also the near relatives discussed here.
Dual-career Couple Mom
So, lastly, I just want to say, despite the seeming linearity of my career as summarized above, this path has not always been clear or easy. In fact, it has frequently been unclear how best to move forward. In the last 7 years, I married Ed Scholes, who I met in Kansas during grad school, and whose work on the birds-of-paradise many of you will come to know (i.e., a lovely book, another magazine article, a traveling museum exhibit, and a TV show, all produced with National Geographic, released in November 2012). We have two amazing children, Nolan (born 2006) and Natalie (born 2011). And yes, for the Moms out there, or the Moms-to-be, being a Mom and keeping my career afloat has been a huge, frequently overwhelming challenge! (But wow, am I lucky to have these things in my life or what?).
What's next? I recently embarked on a new mission in life. Watching unseasonably warm weather from my living room window in January of 2012, I realized all the things I hold most dear on this planet are threatened by climate change; that is, my children, and the precious and inspiring natural world. I move ahead now looking to increase my outreach on the subject of climate change, and especially to help motivate people to action by helping them understanding what we stand to lose from the natural world. In this way I hope to play my part to help "rally the troops" to greater and greater public engagement with this issue.
If you’re still here…thanks for reading. My advice to you? Discover yourself, and what you love, and strive on! Cheers, Kim