Alumna Anne Sabol’s research interests have crisscrossed the globe. The zoology graduate has trekked through the American Midwest, combed the forests of Fray Jorge National Park in Chile and conducted research in the shadow of two active volcanoes to unlock the secrets of animal behavior. Now, the animal-loving Buckeye is working with researchers from the San Diego Zoo to save a rare Hawaiian bird from extinction.
Tell us about your time at Ohio State.
My major was zoology, and I was involved in the Honors Program. One of my favorite classes was a special seminar on mathematical biology with Ian Hamilton, associate professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology. I also really liked taking conservation biology with Professor Lisle Gibbs.
What were some of your research experiences on campus?
For research, I worked in Ian Hamilton’s lab — a fish behavior lab — for 3 ½ years. My big project was studying how this particular type of fish uses their UV vision and coloration to determine if it was a sexual signal or signal of quality. It hadn’t been looked into in that species before.
Where did your research take you outside of Ohio State?
I also participated in a few summer research programs at other schools. I took part in an REU (Research Experience for Undergraduates) at Oklahoma State, where I worked studying bluebird coloration related to nest size and growth to see if there are trade-offs there. We also looked at how bluebird parents are able to cope with different resources. I also did an international research program through the National Science Foundation where we went to Chile and studied how differing predation risk affected behavior and stress physiology in degus, which are a species of social rodent. It was really cool to get the field experience and live in another culture like that and work with the Chilean researchers.
What are you researching now?
After graduating with my master’s from the University of Michigan, I started working with the San Diego Zoo on the Big Island in Hawaii. They have two bird conservation centers here in Hawaii, one on the Big Island and one in Maui, where they breed and reintroduce endangered Hawaiian birds. They’re really trying to contribute a lot and bolster their research program there, and so I was hired as a researcher to work on the ʻAlalā or Hawaiian crow project under a postdoctoral researcher. In the 1990s, there were fewer than 20 birds left. We now have a population of over 125 birds, thanks mainly to hand-rearing efforts.
Two 'alalā (Hawaiian crows) reintroduced by the San Diego Zoo team. Photo courtesy of San Diego Zoo Global.
What do you do as part of this research?
I work mostly with the captive population. My main project is to study what factors lead to breeding success in their mating pairs. Obviously, for a really endangered species — and this species is extinct in the wild, except for the small population the project has reintroduced — breeding and getting up their numbers as high as we can is really important. Essentially, the birds are only in these two bird centers on these two islands. So I design experiments to see what behavioral factors in a mating pair promote reproductive success. Fun fact: They are one of the few birds that can naturally modify and use tools.
How did your time at Ohio State prepare you for the work you do now?
All of the hands-on research I did in the Hamilton lab really helped set a foundation for my research. I started out with very little research experience. Through the lab, I learned how to design a behavioral experiment, how to create an ethogram, which is how you define behaviors that you’re going to study, how to look for what behaviors are important in certain circumstances, as well as how all of this fits in an evolutionary or ecological context.
Because I had all this training at Ohio State, I was able to approach my own research with ideas about how to observe behavior, how to quantify it and how to design a study where you are targeting those behaviors."
As part of her work, Sabol often recorded the calls of the alalā.
How would you describe the environment of the Department of Evolution, Ecology and Organismal Biology?
I found that the faculty were very open. A lot of them were very willing to give me advice on how to look for research opportunities; how to look for grad school opportunities, that kind of stuff. I also thought the grad students were really amazing, both in the lab I was in and elsewhere in the department. They were always willing to help connect undergrads with research opportunities or just look through your cover letters or CVs to help you get these opportunities.
While I was there, the undergrad Evolution and Ecology Club started in the department, and we really tried to better connect undergraduate and graduate students and help make a better community for both groups. It was really nice to create a community within the department.
What advice do you have for current undergraduates in EEOB?
I would say just always seek out people who are knowledgeable about what you want to do. I found that professors are really willing to talk to students and offer help and connect you with good resources. And if you’re interested in research, try to start as early as you can. Since you start out with essentially no experience, to get to the point where you can maybe design your own project and where you feel really comfortable as a researcher, it helps to start early. You can build up that experience with a lab where then you can then get to those later steps. That’s where I feel like research becomes really exciting, when it's questions you want to do and you’re the one driving it.