Featuring our Graduating Seniors: Claire Winfrey



This is the second in a series featuring the 2016 OU graduates who are members of the Siler Lab.  In their own words, they will highlight the experiences they had with us as students, volunteers and/or employees. To read about past Siler Lab graduates, start here.

My journey to the Siler Lab was a little unusual, but it could not have happened at a more fortuitous time in my academic career. When I first got involved with the Siler Lab in the spring of 2015, I was in my fourth year at the University of Oklahoma, but only in my second semester as a Biology major. A year before, I had made the unconventional decision to switch to studying biology at the end of junior year, a complete 180 from my Linguistics and Psychology majors. My entrance into college-level biology initially came from a desire to understand better how language works in the brain, and I took an evolution course as a psychology elective. From an early age I had loved spending time outdoors and had tried my best to limit my impact on the environment, but it wasn’t until I took Evolution with Dr. Ola Fincke that I realized that trying to figure out the biological world’s puzzles was what I wanted to do. I had never taken a class so fascinating. I found that I couldn’t stop thinking about what I was learning; everything around me I tried to couch in terms of its evolutionary origins.

So when I first took Cam’s Herpetology course in Spring 2015, I was pretty sure that I had the passion to study biology, but I had less of an idea what specific direction that passion would take. Other than the frogs and lizards that I had caught near the creek at my house as a child, I had had very little exposure to the world of herpetology or conservation biology. In the herpetology class, I got my first real exposure to field biology, as the class took several trips (several of which involved camping over a weekend) into the field to collect animals. The love that Cam, Jessa, and the rest of the Siler Lab has for herps was infectious immediately. Prior to taking the class, I knew that amphibians worldwide were endangered due to pathogens (such as Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis, or chytrid (Bd)) and climate change, but I had no idea how severe the problem is, the factors that mediate it, or what labs like Cam’s are doing to combat it. In the class, we learned to identify all of the different herps in Oklahoma, their ecologies and a bit of their evolution, and threats that they faced. The class also had a wonderful hands-on component, as we learned best how to find and catch the animals in the field and then how to swab and collect data on the pathogens that they may have carried.

Altogether, what captivated me most in the class was how the unique ecologies of the animals that we studied intersect with the conservation issues that they face. Said in another way, the Herpetology class introduced me to how the evolutionary theory that I find so interesting could be applied to solve real world problems. Together with my love for camping and looking for animals outdoors, continuing my involvement with the Siler Lab was a no-brainer for me! That next fall, I started formally volunteering for the Siler Lab, and I learned much more about the nuts and bolts of field biology, namely, lab techniques and much of what goes into running a lab (Jessa, I will never understand how you do as much as you do! You are a rockstar!). Alongside other student volunteers, I helped with chytrid and DNA extractions, cataloguing and organizing data, and other projects, such as assembling citizen science kits and specimen tags, to help the lab. As someone who had never even dissected before, and had only pipetted once, these new skills were invaluable to me! And I had the sense right away that my volunteering meant something, that I was giving my time to a lab that was making a positive impact in Oklahoma and the world.

This past semester, I continued my volunteering and was also hired to be an undergrad field assistant in the Siler Lab. Several weekends during the spring field season, I was part of small field team that went to various sites in Northeastern Oklahoma to collect animals. We worked long hours (and got a lot of ticks!) to find as many animals as possible, but I loved every minute of it. From spelunking in caves to find salamanders, to wading in snake invested ponds, to walking through dark woods at midnight surrounded by the calls of hundreds of frogs, we had some unforgettable adventures. I also learned a lot about setting traps, collecting eDNA samples, and handling sometimes dangerous animals from the other members of the field team. Even when processing the specimens in lab after the trips, there was a huge sense comradery and teamwork.

As my time as an undergrad draws to a close, it is very clear to me how invaluable working with the Siler Lab has been. This summer, I am thrilled to be an undergraduate TA for Cam’s Field Herpetology class at the OU Biological Station at Lake Texoma. I am also currently looking into biology research opportunities at home and abroad, many of which Cam or Jessa have suggested to me. After a gap year, I hope to return to school to pursue a graduate degree that focuses on how evolutionary ecology can be applied to conservation. I am still figuring out the specifics (which is simultaneously exciting and terrifying!), but I know that whatever path I take, the skills that I have learned and the friendships that I have made through the Siler Lab will stick with me. I am forever appreciative for all of the opportunities and guidance that Dr. Cam Siler and Jessa Watters have given me. You have really made a huge difference in my life. Thank you so much for everything!

Click here to continue the 2016 OU/Siler Lab graduates blog series.