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Currents: adventure in finland

Professor Ben Steele Offers a Student an Uncommon Opportunity Researching Finland's Common Eider

by Kate Dunlop Seamans

Off the southernmost tip of Finland, scattered like breadcrumbs before hungry ducks by a giant's hand, are islands of all sizes. Some are large enough to support stands of evergreens, others are just rocky mounds poking out of the Baltic Sea. In this land of water and forests, one Finnish creation myth says that the world was formed out of a waterfowl's egg exploding, with the upper half ascending to form the sky.

Last summer, Finland's waterfowl — specifically, the sea duck known as the Common Eider — helped create a whole new world of research and science for Colby Chase '11, a biology major from North Berwick, Maine. And there was even an explosion involved — the volcanic kind.

Like the island-breadcrumbs, the courses Colby took on campus led him directly to Finland, though he couldn't have imagined landing there when he was a first-year student back in Professor Nick Baer's ecology class, or in Professor Bill Thomas's BIO 106 course, The Chemical and Cellular Basis of Life, or later in Professor Linas Kalvaitis's course on animal behavior, or even in the course he took on terrestrial ecology as a junior.

For a month last summer, Colby lived and worked at the Tvärminne Zoological Station, located 62 miles southwest of Helsinki. His mission: to study the factors affecting incubation constancy in the Common Eider. He was a long way from home, but the landscape was similar enough to the Maine coast to set him at ease, and he wasn't alone. He was there at the invitation of Colby-Sawyer's own Professor of Natural Sciences Ben Steele, who had taught Colby in his terrestrial ecology course.

A Proposal

For seven years, Professor Steele has flown across the sea to take part in a Novia University research project on the Common Eider. Professor Steele earned his B.S. from Harvard, M.S. from Utah State, and Ph.D. from Dartmouth College. At Colby-Sawyer he teaches courses in animal behavior and environmental studies, ecology and evolution, and he studies the Common Eider's social behaviors, especially its counter-Darwinian habit of joint care of the young.

When Colby took Professor Steele's terrestrial ecology course in the fall of 2009, his ecological interests stood out in a group of biology majors who tended to focus on the molecular side of things. As the semester wound down and the biology majors started thinking about their senior research projects, Professor Steele asked Colby if he'd like to branch off from the existing Common Eider projects, come up with one of his own, and put his hypotheses to the test in Finland. Colby said, “Absolutely.” His parents told him if he could scrape up the airfare, he should take this once in a lifetime opportunity. He did.

Working last spring with Professor Bill Thomas in BIO 351, Research Design, Colby designed a research proposal to study factors affecting incubation constancy in the Common Eider. The female does not feed during the incubational period, leaving the nest only to drink water. Every time she is away, the eggs are at risk from predators. The proposal contains hypotheses about how a bird's body mass/condition; experience/age; temperature and precipitation; covered vs. open nests; and recess frequency versus day of incubation affects a female duck's ability to stay on the nest and successfully hatch her eggs. Colby planned to place programmable data loggers (HOBOs) in the nests of female Common Eiders to record nest temperature every two minutes throughout the incubation period. He theorized that the temperature would fall when the female left the nest for a break, providing enough information to indicate how frequently and for how long the female recessed. He would then be able to track how the incubational behaviors affected the number of safe hatchings. Colby predicted that older, more experienced females with higher fat reserves would be more attentive to the nest, and that they would stay on covered nests at night and during precipitation. He also hypothesized that females would spend less time on the nest as the hatching date approached. With a research plan and projected budget, the proposal was articulate and professional.

“A lot of my ability to write like that came from BIO 106 with Bill Thomas when I was a freshman,” says Colby. “I remember writing these labs that I thought were just ridiculous at the time, like 10- or 11-page papers on microscopes. And rewriting it and rewriting it and rewriting it. His constant pushing made it better and made me realize what the expectations are, and how I should write something like this. I probably rewrote the proposal eight times under Ben's and Bill's guidance. Bill's research design class met once a week and every week he gave me back the proposal to fix. I know the thing by heart.”

From Classroom to Research Station

“In terms of the experience for students,” says Professor Steele, “working on a large research project with a whole bunch of people doing different things is really valuable in order to see what research is all about and what people do in science in terms of ideas and careers. The group Colby and I were working with in Finland had two post-doctorates and one graduate student plus three other field assistants and the project investigator, so there were nine of us doing different parts of the project but working together as a team. That's really the advantage for students, and that's what got me interested as a student in doing science—being involved in a research project.”

Professor Steele says Colby was a natural choice for the research project with his enthusiasm for ecology and an innate flexibility which would likely help him adjust to the challenges of travel, living in a different country, and eating fish and ham for breakfast. “I knew he was sharp enough to do the project, and I thought he might be influenced enough by this to have it affect his career plans,” says Professor Steele. “He's a good student and he's conscientious.”

Professor Steele's faith in Colby's ability to adapt was put to the test even before Colby set foot in Finland. As Colby packed his binoculars, lots of warm clothes, and plenty of favorite snack foods, clouds of ash from an erupting Icelandic volcano disrupted European aviation and closed airspaces as far south as Morocco. Though it was touch and go, Colby's plane took off, only to be grounded in Iceland itself.

“Iceland Air dropped us off at this northern airport in the middle of a huge valley,” says Colby. “It was a five-hour bus ride down to Reykjavik in the fog and rain, plus it was freezing. The hotel was nice, but it wasn't very much fun.”

What he didn't know was that Professor Steele, already in Finland for a month to analyze previously collected data, had reserved the heavily booked car at the research station and driven an hour and a half to the airport to pick him up. After waiting three hours, word finally came that Colby's flight had been cancelled. There was no obvious way to contact him to find out when he was coming. It meant that, when he arrived in Helsinki the next day, he had to figure out what bus to take into the city, how to get the train, and where to change trains.

“After travelling for 18 hours it's nice to have someone meet you instead of having to figure it all out in a country where you don't speak the language, but Colby seemed to handle that very smoothly,” says Professor Steele.

A Bird in the Hand…

Settled into the dormitory-style housing provided at the zoological station, Colby joined the research team and got down to business. The only undergraduate student there, he says the number of degrees he held didn't matter as much as his willingness to work and learn.

“Everyone spoke English, and they all just accepted me and showed me the ropes,” says Colby. “They kind of took me under their wing and showed me around. The amount of data they were collecting was unreal. We'd start at about 8:30 in the morning, take the boats and spread out on the islands a couple miles out to sea, and walk through the woods until we saw a duck. Most of the males had migrated by then, and while some females will nest on open islands, making them easy to find, some prefer the forest where they blend in really well. We'd have to try to reach in and grab them before they could fly away.”

When a bird was captured, it was all hands on deck. The females were weighed, blood and feces samples were taken, along with the bird's pulse; the wing bar was measured and the eggs were counted, weighed and floated — if an egg stayed at the bottom of a bucket of water, it was in the early stages of incubation; if it floated to the top it was close to hatching. Wing flags and leg bands were added before the birds were released.

Colby had to be ready with an initialized HOBO set in case the team found eggs four to five days from hatching, record when and where it went in, and know what day to return to pick it up.

“We timed it so we'd go back for the hatching and get there before the mother could take them to the water so we could catch them and put tags on their heads,” says Colby.

He discovered his data collection system, created on campus, was actually quite variable — looking at the temperature changes, he found it hard to know if the female had left the nest for a break or had simply nudged the HOBO to the outside of the egg circle, or if the thick eider down had accumulated to insulate the device. He monitored 28 nests with his ten HOBOs, but says it would have been nice to have had video cameras to confirm when the females were away.

“It was hands on all the time, and it was really nice being out in the field. I liked the independence of being told, 'This is your project, figure it out.' There was help when I needed it, but I liked having to figure out what I was going to do, how to keep track of every HOBO that was out there. I felt like a scientist. It felt pretty cool, you know, doing all the research. It came down to all my hard work finally coming together. Now I have about 30,000 data points to deal with.”

Number Crunching

Almost a full semester ahead of his fellow senior biology majors because he collected so much data over the summer, Colby got a jumpstart on his Capstone Project this fall by wrestling with those data points and analyzing their significance in BIO 486, Senior Research I. In the spring he will finish looking at his full data set in Senior Research II and be able to draw scientific conclusions, write a report and prepare a presentation for Scholars Day.

A few facets of his research experience will be difficult, if not impossible, to quantify for that final report, though.

“To spend that much time with a professor off campus, working in the field at a real zoological station — it was amazing. I kind of thought going over there it would be ducks all the time, you know —bird, birds, birds. But it wasn't, and I was very relaxed. Being in Finland was a totally different experience. Just knowing I was halfway around the world in a different country, it was kind of like a new start. Almost everyone was speaking Finnish and Swedish and I was like, oh, cool, I don't know what you're saying, no idea. I think I was more cautious, too. I didn't know what to expect, so I kind of took a step back and found my place before I jumped in.”

“We got so that we worked very quickly, very efficiently, together so we got things done,” says Professor Steele. “We meshed really well. And part of the value for him is to see how much fun people have doing this sort of work. The people we worked with marking the ducks and collecting samples, they're always joking around and laughing, having a great time. I was really glad to be able to give him the opportunity to do this project.”

Colby's research experience in Finland is another step on his way to a career in science, to a life influenced by Colby-Sawyer professors who know him and his strengths. Yet, Colby is also shaped by his own ambition and initiative to follow the bread crumbs wherever they lead him.

When Colby thinks back to his month in Finland, he has a clear memory of being alone on an island, laden with scopes and equipment to tape record the female ducks. “It was a beautiful, sunny day and I was on this huge cliff looking out over the Baltic Sea with islands scattered in the foreground, and it was 70 degrees instead of 40. I was in a T-shirt for the first time. I was there for a couple hours, and it was great, just beautiful. I don't think I had a bad day there.”

So what happens after graduation in May? That's the million-dollar question, says Colby, who came to Colby-Sawyer as a pre-med student but found a new direction in the ecological side of biology. Now he is considering pursuing marine biology studies in graduate school, and he has the whole world to explore.