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Moving to a new state to do some new science!

Moving to a new state to do some new science!

The early stages of a scientific career are designed to be unstable, sling-shotting you from place to place as you acquire new skills. I bucked this paradigm somewhat in the first years after finishing my PhD, teaching, and working on local projects in order to stay in the Bay Area; but the lure of learning from a cool new lab (and having health insurance) proved irresistible. At the end of August this year, I moved out to Minneapolis to start a postdoc.

I organized the samples from my PhD, to be stored in the museum in case anyone else ever has a scientific question that can be solved with junco blood.

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I filled my car with my pets, and whatever belongings I could squeeze in around the pets, and drove to Minneapolis.

Sigma the Madagascar giant day gecko looking out the window at Wyoming
Sigma the Madagascar giant day gecko looking out the window at Wyoming


My new lab, at the University of Minnesota, studies communication in frogs. Working here allows me to continue to ask questions about why animals do what they do, but it also gives me experience in topics I’ve barely touched before: frogs, the neurology of sound perception, the logistics of running animal experiments in the lab (Don’t worry, these are nice experiments: we play sound at the female frogs and they hop towards the sound they like best.).

The frogs are charismatic and fun to work with. If you try to hold them securely, in a fist, they crawl out and hop away; but if you let them rest on top of your hand, they sit demurely.

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Their skin is soft and comes in different colors.

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They have big golden eyes and blob-tipped fingers.

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They – Okay, look, they’re not birds. I’ve tried very hard to make them into birds, and it just doesn’t fly, both metaphorically and literally. So I’ve been sneaking back to California to band birds when I can, and watching the birds in Minneapolis, and nursing window-struck birds back to health, and stashing dead birds in my freezer (I’m going to teach my colleagues how to prepare them as museum specimens).

A lovely Nashville Warbler who collided with a window downtown, who I warmed up and kept safe until he could fly off again
A lovely Nashville Warbler who collided with a window downtown, who I warmed up and kept safe until he could fly off again


But the fact that I love birds doesn’t mean I don’t want to learn how to ask scientific questions about other species. I’ve worked (a tiny bit) with mammals, and I hope someday to be the kind of Renaissance scientist who can point to projects on reptiles, insects, shrimp, worms… the diversity of the natural world is astounding, and I’m not passing up an opportunity to understand it better.

Even if it means I’m missing the birds, just a bit.

I think I’ve mentioned before here that, in science, projects never go away. My head is full of frogs right now, but I’m still working on getting the last chunk of my junco research published, and finishing up that mammal project, and building up a secret bird-banding-based project. This blog will still be full of birds; there just might be some frogs hopping along, too.

Male calling to attract a female. I dropped my phone in the pond – twice – and filled my waders with pond water in the course of achieving this photo
Male calling to attract a female. I dropped my phone in the pond – twice – and filled my waders with pond water in the course of achieving this photo


Dr. Katie LaBarbera (@FeatheredKatie) is a Grand Challenges in Biology Postdoctoral Researcher at the University of Minnesota - Twin Cities. This story was published on December 20, 2018, on Dr. LaBarbera’s blog, Tough Little Birds (available here) and has been republished here with her permission.

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