Humans of Biology: Dr. Beth MacDougall-Shackleton

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Q: Tell us about your experience studying songbirds; what’s so interesting about them?
A: They’re a lot like humans; they have accents, language, and they communicate through visual ornaments just like we do.

Q: So how did know that you were interested in birds? Was it required of you to study them or did you just like them before your research?
A: There is a lot of historical backstory; before I even knew I wanted to be a scientist. I was an undergrad and I wanted to go to medical school but I needed a summer job so I talked to my favorite professor to see if he could get me a job working for him. My interest rose because he was studying birds and it really influenced me. You know, I’ve always been an outdoorsy kid, but I always thought that would be my hobby rather than my actual job.

Q: What was so unique about songbirds and was the selling point for your interest in studying them?
A: Birds learn their vocalizations like humans do and a unique parallel with them and humans is their regional accents. We can tell whereabouts another human has come from by their accent and we can do the same with songbirds. By analyzing these different accents, we can conclude the different geographical origins of these birds and see if that correlates to any regional disease that they may have. So by identifying where a species may have lived, we can determine if they were infected or prone to certain parasites and diseases.

Q: How do you analyze the voices?
A: Well it’s even gotten to the point that I can recognize them by just listening. We obviously have specialized equipment as well; we have microphones and solid state recorders and we have the tools to make spectrograms to quantify how different the graphs are.

Q: So what does inbreeding have to do with the accents and songs?
A: Since birds can distinguish each other’s accents, they can use this to identify different species and prevent from breeding with too distantly related birds. Also, the voices help identify closely related species and therefore they will prevent from breeding with them as well because that will cause inbred genetic diseases to become prominent and reduce fitness. You know, what my recent research has also shown is that birds can smell as well. The smell of each bird reflects its genetic makeup and birds use that, in the same way as accents, to prevent inbreeding and hybridizing. More specifically, birds have a certain oil on their feathers which helps them distinguish different species from each other.

Q: Looking at most research conducted these days, we see that many studies done are for the benefit of humans. Do you think that we will ever do research solely for interest or will it somehow come back to humans?
A: Conservation, populations that are endangered, species that are endangered, there are very good reasons to understand the challenges facing those populations. Also just basic interest—even when we’re studying something as weird as a slime mold, and it’s really distantly related to humans, it’s just still so cool!

Q: What’s really different from Princeton, a US university, and Western, a Canadian one?
A: The quality of the best students is actually not different; I realized that the best student here at Western is at the same level as the best student at Princeton or any of the universities in the States. Keep in mind that there is more variation and so the worst student at Princeton may academically be stronger than the worst student at Western. But the big difference involves resources; so, when I was in grad school we went to the tropical forests in Panama and we got to interact with the marine animals there and we went snorkeling. It was a great place for a graduate student, but I like it here now. Classes were a lot smaller compared to here. I was the TA for first-year biology and you could say there were a hundred students in the course compared to Western’s massive 1500+ courses.

Q: What do you do when you’re not teaching?
A: I probably watch too much TV; I watch shows on Netflix. My favorite show right now is The Get Down. I just finished watching it and I’m so sad, I’m just waiting for it to come back on again. My other favorite TV show is The Americans. Also, in my spare time, I play the piano.

Q: What is your favorite genre?
A: Well right now I’m obsessed with Hamilton, the musical. And so I have a book of all of their songs and I try to get my hands to play all these crazy chord progressions of theirs. My favorite song from them would be Yorktown and since their mixtape dropped last night, I had to stay up till midnight to listen to it. Also, my other favorite genre is Blues.

Q: What do you like so much about teaching?
A: It’s partly because I like the material I teach, the theory of evolution to me is intellectually exciting; to me it’s like, ah, all this stuff makes so much sense and they’re connected, whereas in high school they didn’t make that much sense. You know, it’s fun to convey that information to other people and see them start to understand the concept for the first time too. It is obviously a much more energetic job than doing research and attending conferences with other people my age. If I were to give an example of one of the happiest moments of my teaching it would be this one time where this student came by during my office hours and she had difficulty understanding phylogenies and so we sat down and started drawing a bunch of phylogenies and all of a sudden she got it and was so happy. Yeah, that felt pretty awesome.

Q: What’s a challenge you face when you teach?
A: It’s not very much so the teaching that is difficult, it’s the fact of keeping all the balls in the air. If I were a teacher only, my job would have been really easy and straightforward. But what makes my job difficult is that besides teaching intro bio, I also have to teach my fourth year and graduate biology courses. On top of those, I’m an editor of a journal, so I have to read a lot of articles and approve them. I also do my own research, followed by conferences I have to attend, and overall as I said, doing them all at once just makes the job difficult.

Q: If you could meet any scientist, dead or alive, who would it be and why?
A: Darwin, he’s just such an open minded person. I feel like by meeting him and telling him about science today he would accept it and frankly, his own studies would not really be that different to what we discover and conclude today.

Q: What is the story behind your nose piercing?
A: Mm… Let me see. So it was when I was in graduate school and I won this coupon for a free piercing. You know, graduate students don’t have a lot of money to spend so I took advantage of that. I thought of a less outrageous location to get pierced and so I got my nose pierced.

Dr. Beth MacDougall-Shackleton studies the ecoimmunology and behavioural ecology of migratory birds at Western University. Read more about her research here.

Interviewers: Armin Farhang-Pour & Sejin Kim