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Hudson Valley Alumna to Study Birds in Borneo

Kayleigh ChalkowskiLiberal Arts and Science alumna Kayleigh Chalkowski '10 is off to Borneo as part of a Cornell University ornithology field study. Kayleigh's interest in birds was launched with Assistant Professor Kathryn Schneider's "Biology of Birds" course at Hudson Valley Community College. She graduated from Cornell this winter.

Can you talk about why you initially chose to attend Hudson Valley Community College? It seems like you were interested in science but not really sure what you wanted to focus on when you first came here.

I chose Hudson Valley partially because of being less sure of what I wanted to do, but also because it's just so much cheaper. I knew that I could take all of the classes I would get at any institution for a much lower cost with the added benefit of smaller class sizes. The same classes I took at Hudson Valley that had 20-30 students would easily have 500+ at any four-year institution. These smaller class sizes made it less intimidating to ask questions, and it is easier to get individual attention from the professor during office hours.

What was it about Professor Schneider's ornithology course that really excited you?

Biology of Birds really stood out on the course list, and I took it despite the fact that I was at the time more interested in environmental chemistry, hydrogeology and biochemistry. I've always had a long-standing love for and interest in wildlife and so it wasn't much of a stretch for me to want to take this course. In whatever I was studying, I had hoped that my eventual end result would be to conduct research which would lead to a greater understanding of ecology on a broad scale, and perhaps also effectively support the conservation of threatened habitats or species. I'm really grateful that this course was offered because I wasn't really familiar with organismal biology as a field of study. Most of my childhood dreams of careers involved simply learning about animals, but it is difficult to pursue this field since there is such a lack of focus on natural history in high schools and in many institutions out there.

Can you talk about the relationship you had with the faculty here at Hudson Valley? Did they encourage you to transfer to Cornell?

I had so many great professors at Hudson Valley. They were all very encouraging and were helpful not just with specific questions pertaining to course material but in providing guidance toward future career goals. Dr. Schneider actually ended up being a bridge to an opportunity to help prepare specimens at the NYS Museum with Dr. Jeremy Kirchman. Cornell was actually a last minute decision for me. For the duration of my time at Hudson Valley I was intending on transferring to RPI, and was aiming to get a transfer scholarship as well. I ended up getting the scholarship, transferring to RPI, and then realizing that RPI wasn't what I wanted. I wanted to study birds, or at least some sort aspect of ecology, and RPI was not the place to do that. I knew that Cornell was a great school for this field of study and that Dr. Schneider started out there as an undergrad as well.

Moving from Hudson Valley to a school like Cornell University would seem pretty intimidating. Was it?

I didn't exactly go straight from Hudson Valley to Cornell, since I had that one semester at RPI. Either way, the switch was a bit intimidating. I still spent a lot of time studying as I had at Hudson Valley, except this time I was faced with a very difficult grading system that curves everyone according to the scores of the rest of the class. However, despite the fact that Cornell was a lot harder, I was happy to be taking a lot of really interesting classes. I ended up getting my B.S. in Biological Sciences, with a concentration in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

How did you get picked to take this upcoming trip to Borneo, if that's how it worked... Are you excited?

I was looking around on the wildlife job board for internship opportunities that would help me gain more experience in field ornithology before grad school. Up to that point, most of my experience in doing research at Cornell involved behavioral observations, some stuff with plant-insect chemistry, chemical signaling, etc. I actually hadn't gotten involved with an ornithological lab yet. However, I took Ornithology my last spring semester and I was hooked again-- birds are just awesome! I contacted my ornithology professor, Dr. Winkler, about using him as a contact to apply for these internships and he ended up offering the opportunity to work in his lab on a bug project he had going, and also possibly the opportunity to go to Borneo in the spring if they got enough grant money. That all ended up working out and I will be going with the team - Cornell Expeditions in Field Ornithology (CEFO) - to get all sorts of data on the birds out there - video, audio, behavioral/nest observations, survey mapping... the list goes on. I'm very excited for the opportunity to study in a tropical environment and to get involved with such a dedicated, cohesive research group.

With all of that being said, I'll have to give a shout out for CEFO as well. We are a student-run organization and in addition to learning about our target taxa of birds, part of our mission is to help young ornithologists gain experience in the field. Another goal is to reach students who may not be thinking about natural history as a career goal because so many educational institutions lack that focus. Lucky for me, I was able to take Ornithology at Hudson Valley which ended up inspiring me to pursue this field.