Ellen Ketterson is a Distinguished Professor of Biology and Gender Studies at Indiana University. Selected by students at UC Davis to give a Storer Lecture, she talked with Ethogram writer Helen Chmura about her life studying the evolution, behavior, and physiology of juncos.
The Ethogram: When you were a kid, what did you want to be?
Ellen Ketterson: “Being a scientist” is a more specific label today than when I was growing up. I didn’t know that’s what I would do. At first I wanted to marry a college professor, and later on I wanted to be a college professor so I needed something to study.
ET: You started as a botanist but switched to animal behavior, can you talk about that decision?
EK: My mother liked plants (and I like them a lot too) so I got a Masters in botany. After that, I worked as a lab technician. When classes started, I saw undergraduates buying books and I missed being a student. At the same time I started reading books like “A Herring Gull’s World” by Niko Tinbergen and “On Aggression” and “King Solomon’s Ring” by Konrad Lorenz and discovered that animal behavior was what I really wanted to study. Those two things in combination: missing school and discovering what I wanted to do led me to get my PhD.
ET: What advice would you give to students interested in science or for anyone who is contemplating changing what they study part way through their education?
EK: Ask yourself—“Am I the sort of person who asks questions all the time and what kinds of questions do I ask?” I’ve found that most students are interested in the environment or human health. Knowing what interests you is a good predictor of what research would be a good fit. Most people like to see their work within a broader context and see the meaning behind what they do. Asking these questions about yourself will help you see where that meaning lies.
On changing your mind and your career:
EK: An education is about developing your interests. Once you know what you’re interested in you should feel free to redirect and follow your heart. Time is your most precious resource and you should spend it doing something you like. Yes you have duties to others, but there are parts of your life that are for you alone- and you should spend that time doing something you want to do. Also, everyone thinks they are old when they are not. You can change your career at any age. My husband was my role model. He served in World War II, went to college, got a law degree, and when he was a law professor he started studying birds.
ET: What misconceptions do people have about science that you would like clarified?
- Birds aren’t little people. A degree of objectivity is likely to get you closer to the truth about both the similarities and differences between humans and other living things.
- Evolution is all around us. People seem to think it is something that happened a long time ago, but it’s happening every day.
- People should rely on evidence and be rational in the opinions that they hold. Talk to other people—don’t just to talk to people who think like you and agree with you. Gather information and test your ideas against evidence.
ET: What is an animal that you don’t study that fascinates you?
EK: Elephants. I’m fascinated by their size, long lives, social complexity, and bonds with other elephants. It’s interesting to contemplate their vulnerability despite their huge size. When I read about poaching of elephant tusks it just makes me crazy.
ET: You’ve said that you want to see all of the different junco subspecies over the course of your life. What other dreams do you have?
EK: There are many places I’d like to travel: Antarctica, Alaska, Russia, China. This is based on my experience traveling to India. It was a place unlike anything I had seen. If I hadn’t had the experience of travelling there I couldn’t have imagined what it would be like. There are plenty of places I’d like to see that could change my perception of the world and my place within it. I’d also love to see the hibernating garter snakes up in Canada that come out all at once to breed.
There are a lot of books I’d like to read. I don’t care who wrote them, I just like to be in them and be transported to another place or to another person’s mind.
To learn more about Dr. Ketterson’s research, check out her research group’s film “The Ordinary Extraordinary Junco” online.
Watch Dr. Ketterson’s Storer lecture here: