Barn Swallows, Beauty, and Biology – An interview with Iris Levin, class of 2001

Iris and barn swallow

What initially drew you in to pursuing Biology and Environmental Studies? (was it a former teacher, a “calling”, an interest in helping the planet and human beings, the interconnectedness of all things, or “just a whim?”)

 I knew I wanted to study Biology in college, but I had my “ah ha!” moment in a class my sophomore year. The course was Behavioral Ecology and Population Biology with Nat Wheelwright at Bowdoin College. By the third week of class, I knew – I wanted to be that guy. Nat happened to study birds, and ever since my first summer of doing research with him, I’ve worked on avian systems as well. It is amazing what an influential educator can do!

You note that you have spent much time in the study of birds. Was there something in particular about birds – their ability to fly, their relationships, their mating patterns or anything else that drew you initially to study them? Had you always been interested in birds, or was this a new passion come college? 

Birds are wonderful. We know so much about them, in part because bird watching is and has been a popular hobby among scientists and non-scientists alike. Birds are abundant, they are relatively easy to study, their behavior is interesting, and they can be an excellent experimental system. I’ve been lucky to study birds in amazing places: I did my dissertation research in the Galapagos Islands, studying seabirds and their parasites. These days I study a common bird, the barn swallow, that you see swooping between cars at intersections or perching on power lines near open fields. But, why birds for me in the first place? It goes back to those influential moments in class and lab as an undergraduate. You can imagine my delight when I overheard a student this past Fall semester as she passed by my office saying “you know, I find myself really interested in birds!”. Those are the best moments in my line of work!

You currently study barn swallows with your students. Tell us a bit about barn swallows and their social behaviors. What is it about these birds that prompts the study of them? Is there anything that we as human beings can or should learn from them?

I first started studying barn swallow social behavior while I was a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Colorado – Boulder. I was working with Rebecca Safran, who is on faculty at CU. She’s worked with barn swallows since her graduate research and we met at a ornithology conference a several years ago. Social network research was new to me, but the barn swallow is the ‘goldilocks’ bird for this sort of work; they are social, but not so social that the interactions are difficult to make sense of. Still, studying social behavior has some major challenges. What is a social interaction? How can we possibly record all of them, especially in an unbiased way? I meet this challenge by using these novel proximity loggers. The birds wear these small devices as a backpack during the time when I’m collecting data on social interactivity. The tags each emit a unique ID pulse that is recognized by other tags nearby. That way, I can collect data on every close proximity interaction between all tagged birds. From this, I can construct a social network. Then the fun part starts. After some initial work determining what physical and physiological characteristics corresponded with a “popular” barn swallow, I could experimentally manipulate these traits. For example, we know that males with darker belly feathers are preferred by females as mates. When I darkened the feathers of males and recorded how their interactions change, I found that females increased their interactions with the males who experienced this “make-over”. The coolest part? The magnitude of the shift in social interactivity was strongly correlated with the magnitude of the color change, such that males with the greatest shift in color (pale to dark) experienced the largest increase in social interactivity with females! This seems to have all sorts of simultaneous effects on physiology too, as these “made-over” males also experienced an increase in testosterone and a dampened response to stress. Folks are usually quite amused by this work and find all sorts of uncanny connections to human behavior. For me, the most exciting bit is that this is great evidence that organisms are dynamic, interconnected, and integrated systems.

You are a tenure track professor at an all women’s college (congratulations!). You also taught at Grinnell and CU Boulder. Did you choose to specifically pursue teaching at an all women’s school? If so, why? What are some of the benefits and / or challenges that you see in teaching at an all women’s school vs a co-ed institution, and what might you see as some of the benefits and / or challenges for your female students?

[I actually didn’t teach at CU, I was just doing research].

I love my job at Agnes Scott! I didn’t specifically seek out a position at a women’s college, but I am very happy to have a position at one! It’s difficult to get a tenure track job anywhere, and I was very lucky to have several options last year. Agnes Scott was by far my favorite among the job offers I had in hand at the time.  I had enjoyed my campus interview a lot, especially the time I had with students. There is definitely something different about my classrooms now compared to co-ed classes I have taught at Grinnell and the University of Missouri – St. Louis. I actually have a hard time putting my finger on exactly what it is that’s different! One thing for sure is that I tend to get more even participation from a larger proportion of students than I am used to in co-ed classes. And these women are highly motivated to learn, which is a joy for me. I’m also very lucky to teach at an institution that has a fabulous commitment to diversity. Our student body has no ethnic majority, we support a large number of first-generation college students, as well as students from modest economic backgrounds.

As a female scientist, have you experienced any difficulties in making progress for your self or your work in the field? Do you feel that science is on a more inclusive trajectory, regardless of gender? And have you seen a shift in the years since you were student up to now in terms of gender equality in the field?

I recognize moments in my career where I experienced sexism, but to be honest, I am more aware of those moments now than I was at the time (perhaps because I’m at an women’s college!). Women are now the majority of undergraduate biology majors, we’re getting PhDs in my field at a high rate, and are well represented at the postdoc stage. There are still fewer women in tenured and tenure-track positions in biology, but that’s hopefully changing too. To succeed in academia one needs to be all in. I pretty much live and breathe my science. This is possible in part because my better half is also a biologist! I’ve had some absolutely terrific female mentors who have shown me that it is possible to achieve one’s goals as a scientist while still living a balanced life. Now, I’m so excited to get to be a role model for my own students in this way.

How do you feel that your Waldorf education served you in pursuing the sciences and your chosen teaching profession? [can you call this academic profession? So often, folks interpret a faculty position at a liberal arts college as just teaching when in fact we are (mostly) active in research too!]

 I’m 100% sure that my Waldorf education (I’m a lifer!) made me the creative scientist that I am today. Science is truly a creative endeavor; the best science makes new and exciting connections between existing bodies of knowledge, asks new questions, and looks at old questions in new ways. Writing is also critical to good science. Science students don’t often realize this, but as professionals, we write a lot. Our ability to secure funding depends on clear, persuasive grant writing and we disseminate our findings in scientific journals. I learned to love to write as a Waldorf student and this has served me well in college, graduate school, and beyond.

As a biologist, I imagine that you see the world through a slightly different lens than the average person. Can you describe this lens? (This may be hard question- because you have never looked through any other lens other than your own!) 🙂

 Biologists are curious about the natural world. By that definition, I’d hope we are all biologists! Unfortunately, we are often too busy on our phones to notice the world around us. It’s a real shame, because we miss a lot. If we don’t know the world around us, we’re far less likely to care about it. We’ll never protect something we don’t care passionately about. So the next time you’re walking outside, try generating five questions about the life around you.

You work with young adults on a daily basis. What words of wisdom and inspiration do you seek to give to them? And what inspiration on a daily basis do they in turn give to you?

I think that one of my favorite parts of being a college professor is watching my students figure out what they don’t know. As a high school student you get pretty good at knowing what you know, but it is typically in college that you start figuring out just how much you don’t know! This is critical for me as a teacher/scholar because then I get to push my students to do something with what they don’t know. How would we figure this out? What’s the next step? That’s not really about words of wisdom though. I think the most important thing I find myself saying to students when I’m advising them about careers is that they should do what they love, not what they think they should do or what their parents think they ought to do. You’ll be so much more successful (however you wish to define that) doing something you’re crazy passionate about! My students regularly inspire me with their willingness to try (and sometimes fail). Teaching is a two way street and the best moments come when students are engaged in learning, and that involves being wrong.

Iris Agnes Scott students and bluebird