Taking Wing

Research with Biology Professor Becky Fox
Dr Fox and Students

If you live in Lexington, you may have noticed a chameleon-haired professor leading gaggles of bird-watching students around. But you may not be aware of the scope of her research on house sparrows or the level of student involvement in the process.

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“I like birds,” Professor Becky Fox admits with a smile. A first-generation college grad who grew up in a household with backyard birdwatchers and pet parrots, she finished her undergraduate degree uncertain about continuing in molecular biology. She let her love of birds guide her to the University of California, Davis, and a master’s in avian sciences. Taking classes in animal behavior and behavioral ecology, she became fascinated by some of the ecological questions and decided to stay for a Ph.D.

"Why are individuals different? That's the fundamental question."Dr. Fox is interested in individual personality in animals. Through a collaboration with the University of Kentucky’s Dave Westneat (whose son Michael Westneat ’11 attended Transy), and a grant they received from the National Science Foundation, Prof. Fox has been able to take her research on house sparrows from the indoor lab into the natural environment at Maine Chance Farm, UK’s research farm. The grant also pays her students to assist in gathering a large data set from 100-200 nest boxes.

“One of the things we’re asking in our research on house sparrows is the same question you might ask about people,” Dr. Fox explains. “Why are individuals different in how they take care of their kids? What is their sensitivity to changes in the environment?

“We understand quite a bit about personality in humans. But the question of how personality evolved is not entirely clear. That’s what I’m interested in. What’s going on physiologically that makes individuals so different, and what are the consequences?

Dr. Fox and Bird

Dr. Fox loves sharing the hands-on research with her students and encouraging them to get involved in the conversation. In her five years teaching at Transylvania, she has delighted in the support of faculty research and the integration of research into classes.

“At Transylvania, it’s not just hearing about science, it’s doing it yourself,” she explains. “That’s been one of my greatest joys as a teacher. When I think back to my own biology education, I really wish I’d done it this way—small classes, hand-on experience, working closely with faculty. Our seniors who are going into grad school hit the ground running: they know how to search the literature for a paper; they have discussed primary literature papers in class; they’ve designed their own experiments; they’re comfortable interacting with faculty; and they can talk about things in a very sophisticated way.”

Fox proudly recounts some of the names and projects of Transy students who, like the sparrows they once helped to observe, measure and record, are taking wing. Nur Ali ’15 just started her master’s degree in public health at UK. Sarah Gardner ’15 is studying behavioral genomics in mice at Oklahoma State University, Stillwater. Casey Coomes ’15 is at Tulane for a Ph.D. in songbird communication. Courtney Marshall ’15 is a 2016 Fulbright English Teaching Assistant in Malaysia. When she returns, she plans to pursue a master’s in public health or a Ph.D. in epidemiology and then work as an infectious disease prevention field epidemiologist.

“My whole lab class is off to do something really cool. I’m so excited for all of them.”