Odum School alumna Karen Mabry, MS Ecology ’01, received the National Science Foundation’s prestigious Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) award, which recognizes junior faculty who integrate outstanding research and education, in April 2012.
Mabry is assistant professor of biology at New Mexico State University, where her research program focuses on animal movement and social behavior in a landscape context. Her CAREER project investigates the causes and consequences of individual behavior throughout the dispersal process, during which young animals move from their birthplace to the location where they themselves will breed. Mabry will use advanced animal tracking technology to determine how dispersing small mammals explore both the physical and social landscapes before settling, and will employ the same technology for the remote-sensing of behavior in the development of a novel field course for undergraduates and outreach activities for K-12 students.
What was your reaction to receiving the NSF CAREER Award?
Of course I was excited, but also surprised! Funding is tight these days, so I certainly didn't expect to have this CAREER proposal funded on the first submission!
How do you hope this prestigious award will propel your work?
I've always had a tendency to think big in terms of research. This award will make it possible to pursue those big ideas on a large scale.
What was it from your time at the Institute of Ecology that prepared you for where you are now?
I was only at the Institute for two years, but that time truly provided the foundation for much of what I do today. In terms of research, the Institute was where I first developed an appreciation for all kinds of ideas - the behavioral ecology of landscapes, conservation behavior, and of course, the primary topic of research in my lab today: dispersal, which I first became interested in because of its power to link individuals and populations. In terms of teaching, it was where I first TA'ed introductory ecology for undergraduates, a course I'm lucky enough to teach today. I feel incredibly fortunate to have started my academic career at the Institute, which was full of people who were doing outstanding science, but were also very supportive.
What faculty influenced you the most? And why?
I was tremendously influenced by the late Frank Golley. His office door was always open, and no matter what he was doing, he made the time to talk whenever I stopped by. And I used to just drop by fairly often! He also made me really think about what the world might look like to the animals I was studying - he once told me that I needed to think about the world from the "mouseian perspective," and that really stuck with me. He was right: things look completely different to me and to the tiny animals that I study, and I need to always keep that in mind when designing studies!
I was also influenced by Patty Gowaty, who is now at UCLA. Without Patty's influence, especially through her Behavioral Ecology class, I doubt I would have taken the path I did.
And of course I was influenced by my time in Gary Barrett's lab. I remember that he spent a lot of time in the beginning persuading me that small mammals were excellent study systems for questions about animal movement across landscapes. I took some convincing! But he was absolutely right, and I've continued to work in those systems ever since.
What advice do you have for current undergrads and grad students pursuing ecology degrees?
I think the single most important thing I learned from my time as a graduate student is the importance of persistence. During both my master's at UGA and later during my PhD at UC Davis, there were moments of frustration, no, there were weeks and months of frustration, with field studies that weren't working out. Giving up on a project, especially when it looks like there is no way that things will ever come together, can be extremely tempting. But most of us are in this field to understand the natural world, which doesn't always follow our expectations of how things "should" be. Even what I call my "busted field seasons," the years with tremendous effort for what seemed at the time like no reward at all, taught me something. Of course, it's easy to say this now. I certainly didn't feel that way at the time!
What lies ahead in terms of your research?
This may sound strange, but more of the same in terms of the research focus in my lab. The thing is, with this grant, my students and I will be investigating questions that I have been thinking about for a while - years, in some cases. But many of these questions have been just about impossible to pursue, because the technology to answer them hasn't been available. Recently, with the development of things like more advanced systems for tracking animal movement, the tools are there to get at some of the research questions I've wanted to approach for a very long time. So for me, it's exciting to have the opportunity to finally answer some of these questions about how individual animals differ in terms of their dispersal behavior, how they interact with other animals and how those social interactions influence dispersal, and what the consequences of different dispersal behaviors are in terms of survival and reproductive success. These are all questions I've been thinking about for a very long time; since I was a master's student tromping around the Savannah River Site with my telemetry gear in pursuit of mice and rats, in fact. The difference is that after all these years, instead of people thinking I'm crazy for asking these "impossible" questions, I'm finally on the cusp of being able to answer them!