Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology
Smithsonian Institution/Committee on Institutional Cooperation - Dissertation Research Fellowship 2014-15
National Science Foundation - Graduate Research Fellowship 2010-14
Insects and spiders lured Henry Pollock into biology when he built an arthropod collection in his senior year of high school. He went on to study biology and classics at Washington University in St. Louis, doing research on bees in the summer at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.
As interested as Henry was in bees, the work he did was all lab-based. A semester abroad in Costa Rica gave him hands-on field experience. “We spent three weeks in San Jose at an intensive language course,” he recalls, “then spent the spring traveling to different field stations. I found that I really liked working outdoors.” After graduating, he took a year off, working on the ecological restoration of a former cattle ranch in New Mexico. It was there that he began bird watching, first in his spare time at the ranch and then as an intern at the Sierra Nevada Bird Observatory. He realized that he’d finally found his calling.
Henry began his graduate studies in the Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign working with Professor Jeff Brawn, an expert on the conservation of avian populations and communities. His dissertation, entitled Comparative Ecophysiology of Tropical and Temperate-Zone Birds, examines whether tropical birds have greater thermal sensitivity than birds in more temperate zones and thus have an increased vulnerability to climate change.
Henry devised two experiments for gathering data from temperate field sites in Illinois and South Carolina and at a tropical field site in Panama. The first tests the thermal tolerance of a species by measuring changes in the metabolic rate as the external temperature increases and decreases. The second measures how a bird’s internal temperature changes in response to changes in external temperature. Taking these physiological measures into account will allow scientists to more accurately predict which species will persist under different scenarios of climate change.
Field research is fun, Henry says, even if it has its dangers. “I was attacked by a Harpy Eagle once. It’s one of the most formidable avian predators with a six foot wing span and talons as big as fingers. It attacked me from behind and knocked me down. I needed eight stiches. I also had a run-in with a fer-de-lance, one of the most venomous snakes in the world. I spotted it with the head of a bird in its mouth. I could see one of our transmitters on its leg and I wanted that back, so the snake and I got into a tug-of-war. Fortunately, I won,” he says.
Henry started graduate school not only with scientific curiosity but with a desire to make an impact on the world. He believes scientists need to engage with the public, not just with other scientists. As such, outreach has always been important to him. “I’ve given tours to elementary school kids at the University of Illinois Pollinatarium and taught insect-collecting techniques to Native American student groups at Wind River Ranch. In Panama, I taught field courses to college students from American universities. I’m always thinking about how to connect with people beyond the university.”
Henry is the recipient of a Smithsonian Institution/Committee on Institutional Cooperation Fellowship which will support his work through spring of 2015. “Because of the CIC, I’ll be able to keep working at my field sites in Panama and South Carolina and will add a third site in Illinois this winter.” This past summer, he held a short-term fellowship through the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute and prior to that he was supported by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. These and other, smaller grants have enabled him to travel between field sites and purchase the equipment he needs.
Henry hopes to finish his dissertation within the next year and anticipates applying for postdoctoral fellowships. Right now, though, he’s busy managing three field sites and dreaming about staying put in one place long enough to have a garden.