Post provided by Sara Blunk (she/her)

The Rainbow Research series returns to the British Ecological Society to celebrate Pride month 2022! These special posts promote visibility and share stories from STEM researchers who belong to the LGBTQIA2S+ community. Each post is connected to one of the themes represented by the colours in the Progress Pride flag (Daniel Quasar 2018). In this post, Sara Blunk shares her love of birds and experiences being an LGBTQ+ student.

A passion for ornithology

Hi, my name is Sara. I’m originally from the Kansas City area but currently live in Edmonton, Alberta in Canada studying for my Master’s on group-level social learning in birds. My interest in birds began when I was barely out of the womb. My dad claims that by the age of two months, I was holding a crayon and drawing surprisingly decent birds. Though this story is likely very exaggerated, it’s true that I have loved birds for as long as I can remember.

Colour banding a Grasshopper Sparrow. Credit: Sara Blunk

When I was in fourth grade, I was asked to decide my dream job for a career field trip. I think the teacher was very surprised when I said ornithologist! Outside of bird-related research and occasional birding, I make a lot of art (though mostly for myself), have played the oboe for about 11 years, and play with my cat, Percy. Additionally, I run and play in D&D (Dungeons and Dragons) sessions on the weekends. I find that straying away from reality for a bit every week really helps counterbalance my scientific research. 

My cat, Percy. Credit: Sara Blunk

Though I had a strong interest in birds and a desire to be an ornithologist as a kid, I spent a lot of time trying to figure out what I wanted to do. I had periods where I thought I would go into the professional arts field as an animator or a background artist. Then I debated majoring in English and doing professional editing. My first few semesters of undergrad were a time of great uncertainty. To any undergraduates who read this and are in a similar boat, know that it does get better and eventually you’ll figure out what you want to do!

I had no major, and a great advisor told me to really think about what I like doing. I considered how leaders in various fields talk about how they ended up on their career path. Quite often, they mention an interest in childhood that then turned into their career. So, I decided to take a basic biology course to see if I wanted to work with birds. The lovely Teaching Assistants for that course really sparked my interest in biology, so I decided to declare a biology major and begin to participate in research.

Bird on the brain

I took my first research job the summer after my first biology course. I did vegetation survey work with Greater Prairie Chickens living at Fort Riley, helping collect data for a Master’s student in the Kansas Cooperative Wildlife Unit. I spent a whole summer learning more about how habitat and environmental factors affect survival rates -and also avoiding tank convoys and being spooked by loud ballistae. 

Releasing a female Greater Prairie Chicken. Credit: Sara Blunk

After that summer, I looked into other labs. I ended up joining the Boyle Lab at K-State thanks to a project for an upper-level statistics and biology course. I also gave a presentation at local conference on an expanded version of the project, which was about modelling widespread crow abundance.  Banding birds at the Konza Prairie with the Boyle Lab piqued my interest in animal behaviour, so I looked into labs with similar interests.

That’s how I ended up as a Master’s student in the Animal Cognition Research Group at the University of Alberta. My thesis will be focused on group-level socially learned nest-building behaviours (also called nest-building traditions) in zebra finches. Though psychology has been a bit of a change from biology, ultimately I’m still studying what I’m interested in and have an amazing lab and coworkers, so I’m very happy with where I’m at!

Banding a particularly calm American Tree Sparrow in Winter 2021. Credit: Sara Blunk

Being an LGBTQ+ student

If I had to label my sexuality, it would be ace spectrum lesbian. I tend to tell people I’m gay and leave it at that. My time working alongside other queer people at the local OSTEM branch at K-State (along with chatting with other folks) really taught me about how you don’t need to specifically put a label around yourself to still be considered queer. However, I do understand the benefit of labelling, as that does give people a sense of belonging, when they find others with similar experiences.

As for gender, that’s a bit of a complicated area. I’ve spent a lot of my life being the classic tomboy girl. After a lot of introspection and a journey of self-discovery that I’m still on, for the moment I consider myself a cis woman. Ultimately, I don’t really think about labelling my gender besides the fact that I used she/her pronouns and don’t mind being considered a woman (though some feminine terms I don’t like). 

For a lot of us writing these posts, our identity really affects how we interact with our studies. For me, this takes the form of rigorous research for any advisor I may work alongside. This is a note to all advisors out there who want to recruit more diverse students – have an active website that states your desire to recruit and support diverse students, as a lot of potential supervisors I looked into had no website or active social media, which ultimately dissuaded me from reaching out to them.

The Konza Prairie in the winter. Credit: Sara Blunk

Due partially to my method of not extensively working alongside people I can’t fully vet (and also some really good luck), I have been so fortunate to work alongside such lovely people who always make it clear that they are allies to LGBTQ+ folk and are generally open-minded folk. I’ve heard from others (and I’m included in this sentiment) that being LGBTQ+ really affects applications to field jobs. Some of these positions are out in rural areas that likely are not too welcoming to people like me. There is an emphasis on passing and not mentioning anything that may out you, for fear of your safety.

It’s really unfortunate that we have to make these considerations for projects we may want to work on or universities we may want to study at, but that’s the reality we live in. I think bringing awareness to our needs and requirements for support could go a long way in opening up the field to other LGBTQ+ folk.

You can follow Sara on Twitter.

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