Meelyn Mayank Pandit – Ph.D. Candidate, University of Oklahoma
Race/ethnicity that you identify with: Asian – Southeast Asian (Indian)
Where were you born and where did you grow up? I was born in Alabama and raised in Indiana.
Education: 4th year of Ph.D. program in Biology
Dream Job: To become a research professor at a R1 university. I would like to continue my research on how behavioral expression and behavioral plasticity affects fitness in birds, and I would like to continue to develop open-sourced dataloggers for researchers to use.
How did you get interested in biology/ecology/conservation? I was always interested in wildlife as a kid (bugs, insects, reptiles, etc.), but it wasn’t until I started my undergraduate degree at Indiana University that I became interested in ecology and conservation. I received the Cox Research Scholarship which allowed me to do research in the Ketterson Lab. There I was exposed to behavioral ecology and field biology.
Do you have one person who was influential in your choice to study biology/ecology? Dr. Jonathan Atwell and Dr. Dustin Reichard were influential in my career in biology. They were graduate students in the Ketterson Lab while I worked there and worked as my main advisers. They got me interested in sound and avian vocal behavior, which is what the majority of my current research is on.
Are you a first in your family to attend college? Did your family expect you to attend college? Both my mom and my dad attended college, and they expected my sister and I to obtain our bachelor’s degree. They were very open to what we wanted to major in, as long as we did our best.
Do you feel that you see people like you in your future career? Did that impact your choice? Indians are well represented in STEM fields, but not so much in the life sciences. I believe that is due to pressure to go into medicine or engineering, and possibly not knowing about other careers in biology. I hope that we get to see more Indians in ornithology and field biology because it will add new perspectives and lead to new, interesting science. I hope that we do see more Indians and BIPOC in field biology because it will demonstrate that natural areas are accessible to everyone.
What kind of research have you been involved in? The majority of my research is on how anthropogenic effects like noise and climate change affect behavioral expression. One of my first projects at OU examined how elevated noise levels would affect parental care, nestling body condition, and nestling stress in Eastern Bluebirds (Sialia sialis). We broadcasted Brownian noise to bluebird nest boxes during the breeding season in Grand Rapids, Michigan, and we measured parental care behavior using radio frequency identification (RFID) readers developed by the Bridge Lab that would automatically detect adult bluebirds banded with passive integrated transponder (PIT) tags. We found that noise exposed adults visited the nest box more when the nestlings were younger compared to adults not exposed to noise. However, once the nestlings were about to fledge, the noise exposed adults visited significantly less than the no noise adults. These results suggest that parents in the noise treatment group perceived the elevated noise nest boxes as low quality habitat, which led to early investment in nestling provisioning. This investment would lead to nestlings developing faster and then be able to leave the low quality habitat quicker. However, the adults were unable to sustain this higher investment for the entire brood cycle, leading to similar nestling body conditions between the treatment groups. This study demonstrates that noise can have a short-term behavior on avian behavior and fitness, but these effects could have long-term consequences for survival.
The second project I am working on focuses on how the aridity in shrub- and grassland habitats affects the avian soundscape. As an environment becomes more arid, sound will go shorter and shorter distances. Coupled with low water resources and and the increased evaporative water loss, the cost of territorial singing increases dramatically. Birds will need to adjust their singing and territorial behaviors accordingly to defend valuable resources and find mates. If not, birds face increased risk of dehydration which could lead to reduced fitness, death, and ultimately local extinction of certain populations. Last summer, with funding from the Ross Lab, I installed water stations and automated recording units (ARUs) at Sandy Sanders Wildlife Management Area to examine if supplemental water would alleviate the cost of dehydration and lead to increased singing behaviors in shrub- and grassland birds. I am currently analyzing the data, but I predict that birds with access to supplemental water have higher singing activity in arid conditions compared to birds without access to supplemental water.
Tell us about a memorable day in the field. During my master’s thesis at Oklahoma State University, I just had captured a male Eastern Bluebird at the nest box and when I was pulling it out a couple was walking by and asked what I was doing. I told them about my research and one of them mentioned that she was a teacher at Highland Park Elementary and she was passionate about using nature as an educational and mindfulness tool for her kindergarten class. The teacher (Susan Weaver), myself, and other biology graduate students began an outreach, afterschool Science Club at Highland Park Elementary that at first focused on ornithology, but now has expanded to other biological fields and other STEM disciplines. It was a random encounter that turned into something wonderful and I am so happy to have met Susan. From this I have tried to include an outreach component in my research and be involved in outreach organizations like BioReach and the STEM Inclusion Council at OU.
Unexpected skills you learned in graduate school: Being a graduate student in the Bridge/Ross lab have let me expand my woodworking skills and my circuit building/designing skills which I am very grateful for!
What is your favorite organism? I feel like I have to say birds since I study them, and they do deserve the top spot (evolved from dinosaurs, they can fly, have beautiful plumage and songs, etc.) but a close second would be gastropods (snails and slugs). They have the craziest adaptations like torsion (their body is rotated 180 degrees so their anus is positioned over their head), self and cross fertilization, and spiral shells that have radiated into some incredible body shapes and sizes. They can be found on both land and in water, and the marine gastropods have some of the craziest colors and body types I have ever seen.
What topic in biology/ecology fascinates you the most? Behavioral Ecology – how an individual’s behavior can impact its fitness. Specifically how flexible a behavior is under certain circumstances, and how this flexibility could impact selection and even the evolution of behavior under different environments by increasing survival.
What has been the most challenging about becoming a field biologist? Being away from friends and family because you are in a remote location, or because you need to be working 6-7 days a week to make sure you get enough data for your project. Also field equipment not working properly.
What is on your biology/ecology “bucket list”? I would love to study penguin vocalizations in Antarctica or elephant vocalizations in Africa.
What is your favorite natural area in Oklahoma to visit? I really like my field site at Sandy Sanders WMA. It is pretty remote and there are some cool, small cliff and canyons there. There is so little light pollution there that at night you can see all the stars and even satellites passing overhead.
Besides studying biology, what else do you love to do? I love cooking (and eating!) Indian food. During the warmer months, I like to be active by cycling, running, or playing tennis.