An interview with Alison Atkin

We’re excited to continue our series of posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Alison Atkin, a Ph.D. candidate a PhD candidate at the University of Sheffield in England studying biological anthropology and archaeology.  View her project, “Profiling the dead: Learning from mass-fatality events.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

I have quite a broad range of research interests, but over the years I have become more focused into the particular subject I am studying now.  I have, in all of my degree studies, tended to focus on areas of research that would result in a practical application to a current problem facing our field; the political and ethical issues of exhibiting funerary artefacts and human remains in museums, the current state of forensic archaeology in a human rights context, and now the application of demographic theory and methods to mass fatality events – each new research project addressing a lack of research in a particular area identified during the previous project.  I appear to be developing a reputation for taking on difficult and under-studied areas, but I really love the challenges you face with this type of research focus!

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?  What got you interested in this particular project?

Looking back, it seems obvious that I would go on to become a scientist, since I have always been an incredibly curious person.  I was never happy with a simple answer to a question, constantly seeking more details and more information so that I could learn as much as I possibly could on a subject.  I have always been fascinated with biology and history, but I never expected that I would end up in a position that relied so heavily on expertise in both of these subjects  – so it really is the perfect fit for me!

This particular project came to my attention through my PhD research and as soon as I heard about it I just knew I had to jump at the chance to study a lost museum collection.  It is not only really useful as another sample to add to the larger research project, but as a case study it is very unique.  In addition to learning more about this particular collection, I am hoping that by studying it I can demonstrate the importance of re-visiting historical museum collection as methods and theories improve.

Q: What has been the most exciting thing you’ve found in your research so far?

Well, I am not sure how exciting it will seem to everyone else, but I am most fascinated by possibilities this research project offers.  You know how everyone says that history repeats itself?  Well, it turns out that it actually does!  And when we’re talking about mass fatality events, this becomes very significant.  These mass fatality events aren’t as rare as you might think – and they can have huge long-term impacts on populations.  By developing methods to identify mass fatality incidents and the factors influencing the mortality profiles in the past we will be able to better study how these events have affected past populations and human development throughout history.  This is incredibly important if we want to understand what sort of impact future events may have, which in turn may change the way we prepare for them or react after they’ve happened.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

With research funding being reduced year on year it has been increasingly difficult to secure full-funding so, while my tuition fees are covered by a scholarship from my Faculty at the University, I pay for all of my maintenance costs (living and research expenses).  Unfortunately, I have also found myself in a bit of an unusual situation where many more traditional funding options (research councils, professional societies, and charities) which can be used to ‘top-up’ existing funding are not open to me, since I am between residencies.  I knew a lot about crowd-funding being used for non-science subjects and I was really excited when I learned about Petridish.  I am a huge supporter of engaging the public with science, so in addition to the financial support it offers to scientific researchers, I was very keen on the opportunity Petridish affords the public to get directly involved with a projects they find interesting.

Q:  Your project was fully funded within 24 hours of being posted on our site.  Any tips for future Petridish users on how to make a crowdfunding campaign so successful? 

I cannot tell you how surprised I was to login to Petridish the day after my project went live to see that it had already met its minimum funding goal!  In addition to hoping that there are just incredibly generous individuals out there who are interested or invested in your particular research area, I feel the video on your profile is really important to make for a successful campaign.  It is a good idea to practice it before recording so you feel comfortable, but try not to make it too rehearsed – you know your research better than anyone and this will come across when you talk about it. Unless you’re a professional, simple videos are the most effective.  But that doesn’t mean they have to be boring!  I know that some people can find my area of research a bit ‘dark’ so I decided to keep the video light-hearted, which seemed to be quite popular.  And after all the effort you put into your profile and video, you need to make sure people see it, so it is also really important to spread the word once your project is posted on the site – use Facebook, Twitter, e-mail, blog… and ask your friends, family, and collagues to help share it with people too!

Q: What is your favorite part of the work that you do?

I really enjoy the variety of subjects and activities that are open to me as a part of my research.  One day I can be reading about an archaeological excavation and the next I can be learning about advanced statistics.  I could spend all day working at my desk on the computer or I could be at another University presenting my research at a conference.  It might be that I have to spend three hours marking undergraduate papers one night or maybe one morning I might get to spend two hours chatting with school kids about science.  While last week I was piecing together an historic account of a flood, next week I’ll be visiting a museum to look at one of their collections – it may be everyone’s cup of tea, but I asbolutely love changing up what I do each day or week.  It keeps me focused on the task at hand and continually reminds me of my place in the wider world, which helps to keep my research grounded.

To read more about Alison’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

Profiling the dead: learning from mass-fatality events

I will be studying the remains of individuals executed in Nubia during Roman times, using methods not known 100 years ago when they were orignally excavated. This is a part of a larger project studying mass fatality

An interview with Ulyana Horodyskyj

We’re excited to continue our series of posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Ulyana Horodyskyj, a Ph.D. candidate at the Cooperative Institute for Research in Environmental Sciences (CIRES) at the University of Colorado in Boulder.  View her project, “iSpy with my Camera Eye: Supraglacial Lake Changes.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

My research interets and projects have varied throughout my 26 years of life: from solar sails as an alternative to rocket propulsion, to early Earth continent formation, to weathering of rocks in Iceland as an analog to early conditions on Mars, to glaciology in the Himalaya.  Climate change and melting glaciers are two very important topics to address right now, as lives will continue to be adversely affected either directly or indirectly should we fail to act.  I, personally, cannot stand by and watch when I know better through my scientific training.  Though the terrain can be harsh and unforgiving, I believe we need more “boots of the ground” approaches to understand and quantify what is happening in the Himalaya and how that is currently affecting the local populations.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?  What got you interested in this particular project?

My interests in science and the outdoors started at a very young age.  When I was 6 years old, my parents had saved up enough money for our family to travel throughout Europe.  That is when I was first exposed to the mountains – the Swiss Alps.  Every summer as a child I was involved in some kind of science or sports camp, feeding my curiosity and leading me to where I am today.  I owe my parents a huge thank you for believing in and encouraging me.

From ages 13-17, the late physicist, Dr. Robert L. Forward, mentored me on solar sailing, a method of space transportation that simply uses the pressure of sunlight.  He gave up his spot for me at the annual NASA/JPL Advanced Space Propulsion workshop, so that I could present by research on solar sails to a roomful of rocket scientists at the ripe age of 14.  During my undergraduate years, Dr. Cin-Ty Lee from Rice University inspired me in the field of geology, giving me opportunities to travel, present and publish my work as a young scientist.  Finally, Mr. David Breashears of GlacierWorks (who directed the 1996 Everest IMAX film, which I saw when I was 12), inspired me to use my talents to start research in the Himalaya.

Q: What has been the most exciting thing you’ve found in your research so far?

Last summer, my field assistant, Ang Phula Sherpa, and I installed three time-lapse cameras on the Ngozumpa glacier in Nepal, to capture the dominant processes occurring in three different lakes: monsoon rainfall inputs in one; ice calving (collapse) in another; and draining/filling in the last.  For me, the exciting thing was being the first to “witness” these events, through time-lapse imagery.  Not only did we capture one of the lakes draining and then refilling (the first time this has been seen in real-time on a Himalayan glacier), we also gained some insight into that process: How long did it take to drain?  How much water drained?  How long did the refill take?  This continuous oblique-view imagery reveals far more information into glacier lake processes than occasional snapshots collected via remote satellite imagery.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

Times are hard – for everyone, not just for the scientists trying to secure funding.  So, first off, I would like to say a sincere thank you to all my donors and supporters.  It is important for me to “pay it forward”, in the spirit of my first mentor, Dr. Forward.  Thus, I believe it is crucial to keep the public informed on scientific topics of interest and to do so in a clear and effective manner.  Posting on PetriDish leads to project accountability and transparency, important in any research that is done.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work that you do?

I love to be outside, working in the field with my “boots on the ground.”  I thrive on outside-the-box thinking and nowhere is that tested more than when working in the field.  The challenges range from dealing with unexpected results that arise, leading to even more challenging questions.  I also enjoy training and working with local residents, informing them of what is happening in their backyards and giving them some sense of project ownership, too.  I hope to launch the Sherpa-Scientist Initiative this field season, which will involve more training of Sherpa on camera and instrument maintenance and data collection from their glaciers.

To read more about Ulyana’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

iSpy with my Camera Eye: Supraglacial Lake Changes

Time-lapse cameras along the Ngozumpa, one of the largest Himalayan glaciers, are helping scientists figure out how high mountain glaciers change on a day-to-day basis during the melt season.

An interview with Dan Madigan

We’re excited to continue our series of posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Dan Madigan, a Ph.D. candidate at Hopkins Marine Station of Stanford University.  View his project, called “Fukushima TRIPS: Transport of Radionuclides in Pelagic Species.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

My interests are the movements and ecology of apex predators of the Pacific Ocean (billfishes, tunas, sharks, etc).  The pelagic (deep, offshore) environment is vast and in many places, there aren’t many features that aggregate food (small fish) for the big fish.  How do the large animals make a living in this environment, and where do they travel to manage to survive?

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

I’ve always had a basic interest in natural biology, and it was an obvious major for me in college.  My deepest interests always lay in the ocean.  I went fishing for billfish in 2006 and after hours of blank ocean – there they were.  Why were these huge animals in this spot, and not somewhere else?  That’s when I got interested in large, migratory fish.

My studies of bluefin led to the radiocesium project on an informed guess.  We know that small bluefin off California recently migrated from Japan.  In 2011, months after Fukushima, I thought: what if these fish picked up radioactivity off Japan and transported it across the whole Pacific?  I got in touch with Dr. Nick Fisher whom I knew since I was an undergrad, he agreed we could take a look, and it led to our finding of radioactivity in all 15 sampled bluefin.  The logical next step was to look at other animals that migrate long distances.

Q: What has been the most exciting thing you’ve found in your research so far?

The first fish that showed up ‘hot’ was probably the most exciting moment I’ve had.  It was an inarguable, amazing, and surprising finding.  Those moments don’t happen as often as people may think.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

I was actually contacted by Petridish.  Once I learned what it was I thought it was a great idea.  We have received funding from the Moore Foundation and NOAA to look at Pacific bluefin much more thoroughly this year.  But we don’t yet have funding to look at other species, and after the bluefin study the public made it very clear that they want more information on what levels of radiocesium are in their fish.  This seemed like a great way for the public to take part in finding that out.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work that you do?

I can’t lie – you can’t beat fieldwork in the open ocean.  We see whales, turtles, dolphins, and fish (my greatest interest) ‘boiling’ on the surface, feeding on small fish.  Sometimes, after days of searching, it doesn’t get better than seeing those pockets of life.

To read more about Dan’s research, ask questions or back his work, view the project page:

Fukushima TRIPS: Transport of Radionuclides in Pelagic Species

Pacific bluefin in 2011 carried radiation from Japan to California. What other ocean species are transporting radiation from the Fukushima spill around the Pacific Ocean?

An interview with John Viator

We’re excited to continue our series of posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with John Viator, an associate professor of Biology Engineering and Dermatology at the University of Missouri. View his project, called “Listening for cancer: Early detection using laser ultrasound.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research interests.

My research field is biomedical optics, that is, the uses of light to improve human health.  Most of my work involves lasers.  In fact, using rapidly pulsed lasers I can induce a photoacoustic effect, a laser induced ultrasound.  This area is my particular specialty and is used in my current project.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist? What inspired you to research cancer specifically?

I’ve always been interested in science for about as long as I can remember.  Ever since high school, though, I think I’ve been most attracted to science that is based on strong, well developed mathematical principles.  My academic background reflects that, as I have degrees in physics, mathematics, and electrical engineering.

In graduate school I was interested in a lab that used lasers for problems in cardiology.  My interest in medical lasers naturally extended to cancer, since the magnitude of the problem is so large and I found that lasers offer special advantages, such as targeting the pigment melanin in melanoma cells.

Q: What has been the most exciting thing you’ve found in your research so far?

Interestingly enough, my project has given me the most excitement.  When I began my work in photoacoustics, I was looking at bulk tissue, such as large areas of skin.  I would use lasers to perform depth profiling and imaging of burn injury, vascular birthmarks, and tattoos.  I was amazed at how sensitive I could design a photoacoustic system, one that can detect individual cells, in this case, cancer cells.

Q: How have your experiences been with the existing science funding system?

I’ve been funded through the NIH, the State of Missouri, by industry, and by various non-profit foundations.  Getting funded seems more difficult than ever and timelines for funding are drawn out.  In some ways, the process can be a barrier to getting research done. Fortunately, I’ve had excellent support from the University of Missouri to keep my work going.

Q: Why did you decide to post your project on Petridish?  

Jack Schulz, the director of my research center, is active in many areas of science, including cutting edge ideas in science outreach.  He mentioned and encouraged me to give it a try.

Q: What is your favorite part of the work that you do?

While I am always excited about scientific research, I’m more interested in educating students to become scientists.  I’ve been a mentor to graduate students for a while, and I’m getting more involved with mentoring undergraduate and even high school students.  Getting smart, motivated young people is a force multiplier in laboratory research.  But more so for me, I find it exciting to help these students develop into scientists and medical professionals.

Q: How do you envision the future of cancer research?

My perspective on cancer research is more narrowly focused than, say, a cancer biologist.  While I am interested in basic cancer biology, I spend my time creating devices and instrumentation to aid in cancer care and cancer research.  Thus, I’m not sure how valuable my opinion is on cancer in general, though I can predict that cancer diagnostics will become more focused on molecular methods, allowing clinicians to become more specific in treating patients.  I don’t think we yet understand how specific and unique each person’s disease is.  I believe that new diagnostic and eventually therapeutic methods will be tailored to each patient individually to a degree never anticipated in the last few decades of cancer care.

To read more about John’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

Listening for cancer: Early detection using laser ultrasound

We have created a laser ultrasonic flow system to find single cancer cells in blood samples of patients for early detection of metastasis. This project will capture those cells for genetic analysis for improved treatment.

Alternative funding models for science research

As most scientists know too well, funding a research project is traditionally a time-consuming and complex process that leaves many important projects unfunded.  At, we’re excited to help solve this problem with an entirely new way to fund science.

Recently, we came across a great article discussing the funding problems that scientists face, and possible solutions to that problem.  It’s called “Fund people not projects” by John Ioannidis, and was published last year in Nature.

The article focuses mostly on fixing the existing government-backed funding system.  Here are some of Ioannidis’ ideas for alternative funding strategies:

  • Equally divided funding: Eligible scientists all get funded equally.  Ioannidis explains that the NIH budget of $31.2billion per year for research would give 300,000 researchers over $50,000 a year to conduct their research.
  • Merit-based funding:Through an extensive peer-review, institutions could select scientists who most deserve funding based on an analysis of their overall career trajectories and successes.
    • Automated ranking system: Rather than peer-review, scientists could be rated by an automatic index in order to ensure objective analysis of merit.
  • Random, lottery-driven funding: All researchers desiring funding enter a lottery system and funding is randomly distributed based on the luck of the draw.
  • Broad goal funding: Rather than project-specific grants, funding could be allocated based on the overarching goals of the scientist, with a less specific, less time-consuming account of how exactly the funds will be used to achieve that goal.

While many of these ideas are thought provoking, we think an important part of the solution is increasing public engagement with science and tapping into private donations.  With Petridish, scientists can share their work more broadly and reach new pools of funders.

Let us know: what else do you think could be done to fix our research funding system?

Read “Fund people not projects” here.

Tips for science crowdfunding success, part II

In last week’s blog post, we shared some advice for promoting your crowdfunding project. This week, we’re continuing our series on crowdfunding education with tips for expressing your message and offering rewards:

1.    Crafting a compelling message

  • Communicate your passion – it’s contagious!  Backers want to connect with you personally, so it’s a good idea to narrate your video yourself.  This helps build understanding and interpersonal trust.
  • Use your project’s text descriptions to teach, inform and interest your readers about your work.  Tell them who you are, what you do, and why it’s important.
    • Keep it short, sweet, and accessible.  Write for a general audience, explaining any scientific concepts and avoiding jargon when possible.
    • Clearly explain what you will do with your funding, and why that work is meaningful.
  • The pictures you feature are crucial to your project’s success. Choose visually beautiful images to draw people in and encourage them to share with their social networks.

2.    Offering incredible rewards across a wide range of price-points

  • Rewards help backers feel truly connected to the research by offering them mementos and tokens of appreciation in exchange for their support.
  • Rewards should be fun, tangible and provide value in exchange for the contribution.
  • Offer rewards for support starting at $1 (so anybody can participate), and increase the wow factor of the rewards as the funding level increases.  Having a really unique or buzzworthy high-tier reward will help market your project.
  • Make rewards unique whenever possible.  Handwrite, sign, customize and personalize rewards to make backers feel that their support is being appreciated in a thoughtful way.
  • Enticing rewards will range broadly based on the price-point.
    • At lower donation levels, offer rewards that will be easy for you to distribute.  Examples include weekly email updates or acknowledgments on your website.
    • As price increases, appealing rewards can include frame or signed photographs of the work, acknowledgment in resulting publications, and even naming a species or taking a trip into the field with the scientist.

Got more tips? Comment and let us know!

Tips for science crowdfunding success

As the largest platform dedicated to science crowdfunding, we’ve learned a lot about what it takes to create a successful campaign for your research project.  When you launch a project with Petridish, we’ll provide you with tools and tips all along the way to help you succeed.  To get you started, here are a few best practices for promotion of your project: 

1. Donors like to see that you already have backers before deciding to support you themselves. You should be prepared to promote your project to close supporters when the project launches, so you can generate a baseline level of support early on.

  • Create an email announcement list, where you can send the project launch to friends, family, colleagues and others who you think might be interested, asking them to back you.
  • Use your social networks continuously over the course of the campaign– facebook, twitter, and google plus are great ways to get the word out.
  • Reach out to your colleagues and collaborators and ask them to help spread the world also

2. Keep your supporters engaged over the course of the campaign.

  • Use Petridish’s “update” feature to provide frequent updates over the course of the campaign– perhaps pointing out coverage the project received, milestones it has hit, or developments in your research.
  • Make sure to reply to all of the comments and questions posted on your page– this will help build excitement and discussion about your project.

3. Leverage the press and other organizations to help you reach a wider audience.

  • Create a list of reporters who you think would be interested in covering your story and reach out to them when the project goes live, asking for an article. You’ll be surprised by how accessible they are.
  • Create a list of organizations that may be interested in your work that could help spread the word and reach out to them. A few examples are professional organizations, charities, or groups at your university.

Got more tips? Comment and let us know!  We’ll be sharing more tricks of the trade next week when we talk about communicating your message and offering rewards.



An Interview with Alton Dooley

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Alton Dooley, a paleontologist at the Virginia Museum of Natural History. View his project, called “Saving fossil whales in Virginia.”

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research.

I’m a geologist and vertebrate paleontologist by training, and much of my work has centered around fossil whales. I’m especially interested in how the marine faunas in the North Atlantic Ocean have changes over the last 25 million years, and the reasons for those changes. When the Calvert Formation was being deposited around 14 million years ago, whale diversity was very high; there are more species of baleen whale in the Calvert Formation than there are in the entire world today. But it appears that baleen whale diversity plummeted between 14 and 7 million years ago. I’d like to find out why.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

I’ve wanted to be a scientist for as long as I can remember. I was already interested in dinosaurs when I started school. When I was around 5 years old and found out they were extinct, it occurred to me that they might still be living on other planets so I started reading books on astronomy to find out. For years I read every book I could find in the public library on both geology/paleontology and astronomy, and didn’t choose between them until I took my first geology class in college. At least I can now answer my 5-year-old self; dinosaurs didn’t escape to another planet!

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your research so far? 

When we did our first excavation at Carmel Church back in the 1990′s we thought we would only find a single whale, and that it would be a very fast and straightforward excavation. We pretty quickly discovered there were more remains there than we had originally thought, but it was several years before we fully realized that we were dealing with a unique bonebed. So far we’ve collected tens of thousands of bones and teeth, yet we’ve only excavated an area of about 300 square meters. To date we’ve found remains of over 50 different species, and we find new ones almost every time we go back to the site. We now have at least 17 different species of whales, some of which are only known from Carmel Church, and more than half of all the Miocene land mammals ever found in Virginia came from there.  We actually once found a pile of camel teeth sitting in the middle of a baleen whale skull! Yet we still haven’t come up with a good explanation for how this bonebed formed. We’ve rejected lots of hypotheses, and each specimen we collect gets us a little closer to the answer. 

Q: Why did you decide to post a project on Petridish?

I think crowdfunding has a lot of potential in science, especially as grant funds become harder and harder to obtain. A lot of important science can be accomplished with relatively modest funding. I like that Petridish focuses exclusively on science, as that makes it easier for donors to find projects to support.

Q: What’s the funniest thing that has happened to you in the field? 

A few years ago I was working with several volunteers to excavate a whale skeleton from the cliffs along the Potomac River. We had to use a boat to get to the location, and after removing the whale from the cliff we had to load it into the boat for the return trip. The whale weighed around 1,500 pounds, which was probably far too heavy for our boat, but we loaded it up anyway. We were so overloaded that, even with a 90-hp motor, canoes were passing us. It took us over a half and hour to make the 1-mile trip back to the boat ramp.

To read more about Alton’s research, ask questions or back his work, view the project page:

 Saving Fossil Whales in Virginia

The sediments at Virginia’s Carmel Church Quarry have yielded over 50 fossil species, including whales, sharks, turtles, crocodiles, sea cows, and land animals. We are trying to save these remains before they’re lost to erosion.

New Discovery Funded by Petridish Published in Science!


We have very exciting news: the first new discovery funded on Petridish has been published!  Congratulations to Dr. David Kipping and his team for their publication on May 10th in Science!

Dr. Kipping’s research exploring the existence of exomoons, moons outside of our solar system, sought to advance the search for extraterrestrial life while also increasing our understanding of planets and solar systems.  Their project, named HEK, or Hunting Exomoons with Kepler, used data from the Kepler telescope to detect wobbling motion of planets resulting from the tug of a moon.

The funding Dr. Kipping and his team received from Petridish enabled them to purchase a supercomputer that could sift through the Kepler telescope’s data 24 hours a day.  While the team has not yet discovered the first exomoon, the supercomputer helped them discover a new planet that cannot be directly seen by the Kepler telescope.  Read about their incredible discovery here.

We look forward to seeing many similar successes as more projects get funded on Petridish!

To read the abstract of Dr. Kipping’s article in Science, click here.  Science Magazine subscribers are able to read the full text here.  You can see Dr. Kipping’s completed project on Petridish below:

Help us find the first exomoon

We want to study the existence of exomoons, or moons outside of the solar system. Not only will this enhance our understanding of solar systems, but because moons are potentially habitable, we could advance the search for life.



An Interview with Jennifer Calkins

Over the next few weeks, we’ll be featuring posts from researchers who’ve posted projects on Petridish, highlighting their backgrounds, research interests and experience with the funding process.  Our next interview is with Jennifer Calkins, a biology professor at The Evergreen State College. View her project, called “The Quail Diaries:  Seeking The Origin of Callipepla

Q: Tell us a little bit about your research.

I am extremely interested in the evolution of behavior in New World quail species.  As a result of this interest and my work with California quail, I’ve become more deeply intrigued by the evolution of dynamic mating and social behavior.  In other words, I’m curious about how individual birds make choices about who they mate with and who they associate with in family groups and in coveys depending upon their social situation and their environment. The project I am focused on in the Petridish campaign involves the examination of the extent of dynamism across four species of New World Quail–a question that has implication for each species persistence in the face of habitat conversion and climate change.

Q: What inspired you to become a scientist?

While I’ve been interested in biology since I was a kid, it was during a Marine Biology class at UCLA that I decided that I was going to be a biologist.  I always loved science and enjoyed the observation of other animals; this course made it clear to me that the study of animal behavior was an actual possible career path.

Q: What has been the most surprising thing you’ve found in your research so far?

That California Quail families are a mix of related and unrelated individuals.  When we see California Quail during the breeding season, we typically see a male, a female, and some chicks.  People view this as a perfect monogamous (nuclear) family.  However, Quail actually spend time in all sorts of family formations (multiple males, multiple females, single males, single females) and even these apparently nuclear families are comprised of many offspring that are not the male’s genetic kin and even some that are not the female’s genetic kin.  This suggests to me that the dynamics of parentage and family behavior are more complicated that is apparent from our observations–it also raises the question of how the intense social behavior during the nonbreeding season affects how these families form during the breeding season.

While the current Petridish project does not directly investigate parentage and family behavior the differences we’ve already observed among the four species of Callipepla in social and mating behavior is likely to be a direct cause of some of the differences we may see in the ability to adjust to novel habitats.

Q: Why did you decide to post a project on Petridish?

I am very excited about this particular research project but need funding to facilitate it.  I had experience crowdfunding a project through Kickstarter.  I learned about Petridish in a conversation with Matt Salzberg and was very impressed with their approach to directly crowdfunding scientific projects–they’ve set up a strong platform that addresses very specific issues associated with funding science in this manner.

Q: What’s the funniest thing that’s ever happened to you in the field?

Probably my ongoing battles with Quail predators–in particular Cooper’s Hawks and Bobcats. The Cooper’s Hawks are primary predators of many North American Quail species–I am convinced they are slightly crazy.  I’ve been dive-bombed by Cooper’s when I’ve gone to pull Quail from traps–once I stood up, Quail in hand, to see a Cooper’s headed top speed towards my face.  It veered off at the last moment, which was good.   In my experience, if a Cooper’s has started hanging around a trap it’s best to move to a different location because the Quail will never show up.

The Bobcat issue happened during one two week period.  On the first day, I set a trap, walked away to sit behind a blind and when I’d turned back a Bobcat popped up from behind a hill near the trap and stayed until I finally gave up and disengaged the trap.   This went on for a couple of weeks and I ultimately had to move the trap.  While moving traps seems obvious and easy, it actually takes a substantial amount of work to figure out exactly where to set the traps up–Quail seem to need to be regularly in a location and “in the mood” when they are in that location in order to go into the traps.

To read more about Jennifer’s research, ask questions or back her work, view the project page:

The Quail Diaries:  Seeking The Origin of Callipepla

When the environment changes, why do some species survive and others vanish? We seek answers to this question in the past and present traces left by the four closely related members of the charismatic Callipepla quail.