Dec. 28, 2011

To Australia and Beyond: Q & A With Dr. Annie Bosacker, Biology Professor and Field Researcher

by Kaitlyn Gerber

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Kaitlyn Gerber, Carleton College

Photo Credit: Carleton College

This winter, I am fortunate enough to be spending a semester in Australia as a participant in Carleton's Marine Ecology Study-Abroad program during which I will be studying the unique characteristics of Australia's various ecosystems. While the program mainly emphasizes coastal and marine environments (including the Great Barrier Reef!), I'll also be spending some time in the tropical rainforest, as well as in Sydney and Melbourne. Hopefully, I'll be able to blog about some of my adventures there -- or at the very least, take some pictures. (So stay tuned!

Prior to our January 1st departure, I was lucky enough to interview Dr. Annie Bosacker, the fearless leader of the program. Dr. Bosacker, a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology at Carleton College has done significant research studying baboons in Gombe National Park, Tanzania. Her main research interest is in the social behavior of primates, specifically how social circumstances influence an individual's exposure to stress. Here, Dr. Bosacker speaks about her previous work, her interests in biology, and what it's like balancing a family and a successful career in biology.

How did you come to work in the sciences?

I’m a happier, healthier person when I get to spend a lot time outside. I love forests especially, but I’ve also grown to love rocky ocean shores, open savannahs, and anywhere I can find an animal to observe. I was once completely oblivious to this truth, though. As an undergraduate, I focused my studies on genetics and cellular biology, and I had every intention of pursuing a career as a laboratory biologist. Because these were considered to be the “difficult” subjects, I naïvely thought of these as the “better” branches of biology -— the ones where people do real science.

What changed your mind?

Two experiences set me on a completely different path, and one that I know ultimately led me somewhere I’m very happy to be. First, I got to go on the very same study-abroad program to Australia that I now lead. It was ten weeks straight of field biology. Ten weeks of intense sun, incredible heat, blinding rain, and phenomenal happiness. The idea of doing science in the field started to appeal to me. But it wasn’t until I took my first class in animal behavior that I had a life-changing epiphany. I knew that scientists in nature documentaries got to travel to fantastic places, got to spend their days observing animals and asking great questions. But I never really thought that these were real people doing real science! I was hooked, and lab science lost its hold on me. I’ve found ways to do science outside ever since.

What is your primary research interest? How did you come to work in Tanzania?

My project and my research interests evolved over the years, and it ended up being a very interdisciplinary project that looked at how a female baboon’s social circumstances affect her exposure to life’s stressors. Right now, I’m really fascinated with the idea that early exposure to challenges might influence the suite of coping strategies a female baboon relies on when she’s an adult. I also want to think more about the big picture of the stress response system, and whether approaching our understanding of it in a slightly different way might help us make sense of the sorts of patterns that are central to life-history theory (e.g. if there isn’t a lot of food around, don’t waste your energy making babies).

I ended up in Tanzania because my graduate advisor was Dr. Craig Packer, and he wanted someone to look at stress, rank, aging, and reproduction in the olive baboons at Gombe National Park. It sounded like a pretty fascinating project to me, and I was absolutely thrilled to have an excuse to go to Africa to hang out with a bunch of monkeys. That said, I’m still trying to figure out how I can add research back into the mix of teaching and raising my four kids without careening myself off the tightrope of sanity. My research ideas are mostly simmering on the back burner right now.

What was your favorite part about working in Gombe National Park?

Easy! I had a fantastic excuse to spend my days outside watching wild animals. I inherited my obsession with (addiction to?) animals from my father and grandfather, and I long believed that everybody’s favorite thing to do was to sit at one zoo exhibit and watch the otters or gibbons or tapirs all day (Author's note: Me too!). I can get sidetracked for hours watching my daughter’s pet guppies, so days and days watching the soap opera of wild baboon life was like heaven to me.

How did you become interested in leading the Coastal Marine Ecology trip to Australia?

This was a true story of Right Place, Right Time. Developing a successful study-abroad program was on my goal list, and I’d already figured out ways to involve undergraduates in my field work in Africa. With three young children, this was a distant dream. I was in my second “visiting” year at Carleton when the same program that introduced me to the wonders of field science was canceled because none of the faculty at Carleton was in a position to direct it. It was a popular program, so many students were desperate to see it reinstated, and somehow my name got thrown in as a possible solution. The administration was willing to let me take on the program, in spite of my visiting status. Because one of my many incentives included travel expenses for my family, my husband and I agreed it was an incredible opportunity. (Also, I’m not ashamed to admit that swapping Minnesota winters for Australian summers is a big win!) It was a bit of a leap of faith for everyone, but one that has led to incredibly high rewards for dozens of people.

Overall what would you say is your favorite part of the Australia program?

Heron Island, where we'll be spending some time, is a famous nesting ground for green sea turtles. (Photo Credit: Wikipedia)

It’s a teaching opportunity that plays to my strengths. I get to be outside, teaching to my passions. I get to know my students as people, not just pupils. This kind of immersion learning and teaching means that I can help my students learn an incredible amount about ecology, but also—and equally importantly—about themselves. We each meet academic and personal goals in ways you just can’t foster on a traditional campus in a conventional course. We become an incredible community of learners, and the connections we establish are proving to be long-lasting.

I have never been happier in my life than I am with my family and my students Down Under. We do science outside all day, and then we come back home like one giant happy family to share stories, food, and card games. I think I’ve identified a new psychiatric condition I call Post-Dramatic Happiness Disorder. I now spend my days chasing that feeling of perfect bliss, and I count down the weeks until I get to share the experience with another group of enthusiastic undergraduates. So that sense of complete contentment, peace, and purpose—that’s my favorite part.

You are currently a visiting professor at Carleton. What are the primary classes that you teach?

As a visiting professor, I teach a hodgepodge of classes. Basically, anything that needs teaching that I happen to be qualified to teach. I’ve been doing this for the past five years, and so far I’ve taught courses in introductory biology, marine biology, field studies and research, animal behavior, and behavioral ecology.

I also do summer programs—most notably Carleton Summer Science Institute. Our primary goal is to give high school students three weeks of science immersion, in the hopes of enticing them to study the sciences when they get to college. One of my personal goals is to dispel the myth that you have to be inhumanly focused, brilliant, and somber to succeed in science. I try to build a community that takes both science and fun seriously, and so far that model has been incredibly successful.

Overall, what is your favorite part about teaching biology?

[That's] kind of like asking a duck, “What’s your favorite thing about water?” Ducks just like water, and I just like teaching. I can barely function without it. It’s the one thing in life that is guaranteed to make my day better and to make me feel like a pretty fantastic human being.

I think of teaching as a performance art. While my job is ultimately to impart knowledge, teaching and learning is a process that is much more effective when everyone is awake, engaged, and having a bit of fun. In part, I love teaching because it gives me a platform from which I can share stories about the things I’m most excited about—from cellular respiration to the evolution of behaviors. I’m not shy about my obsession with biology—especially animal behavior—and I tell students my number one goal is to make it impossible for them to ever again watch an animal doing anything without asking dozens of questions about what that animal is doing and why. I love getting notes from former students in which they tell me that I infected them with a curiosity about animals that they just can’t shake. What I guess that means is that having the opportunity to share my passions with other people is one of the greatest joys of my job.

You are also a mother of four children. How do you balance your career with everything going on in your family?

My greatest life challenge for the last nine years—and certainly for at least the next eighteen—has been to find a balance between my needs and my family’s needs. Being a perpetual visiting professor has its perks, the greatest being that I can be very thoughtful about how I balance my career with the needs of my family. Sometimes I’m home with my four kids for months, sometimes I’m away for several weeks. It’s ultimately up to me which jobs I will take and which I will turn down. The biggest downside is that I can’t always count on getting to do what I love in the long term. But while my children are still so young, it’s a trade-off that keeps me sane. Mostly.

I will be charting course for Melbourne on January 1st, so stay posted for pictures, fun facts about Australia, and more. Happy New Year!


Kaitlyn Gerber is a sophomore at Carleton College, where she plans to major in biology. Originally from Ridgefield, CT, she is an active soccer player and science fan, especially of ecology and astronomy.


About Kaitlyn Gerber

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