UNC Biological Education Doctoral Candidate Receives $20,000 Award
May 18, 2021
Karina Sanchez, a Biological Education Ph.D. candidate at the University of Northern Colorado, has been awarded a $20,000 American Dissertation Fellowship award from the American Association of University Women (AAUW), an organization that promotes education and equity for women and girls.
“I’m really honored to get this award from an organization that’s dedicated in supporting women in academia,” she said. “It’s going to make a huge difference in my final year of working on my dissertation, which will essentially allow me to have a living wage without having to work as a teacher’s assistant so I can more easily concentrate on finishing my work.”
Sanchez’s dissertation involves researching how noise and light pollution and landscape composition in urban settings affects American robins, specifically their bird song. Her faculty advisor is Lauryn Benedict, Ph.D., a professor and the associate director of Biological Sciences at UNC, whose research interests include animal communication and social behavior.
“There’s lots of evidence right now showing that birds are changing their songs to avoid being masked by loud noises in urban areas,” Sanchez said. “We’re seeing changes in their frequency where they’re singing at higher pitches as well as singing in between traffic noises or later in the day due to light pollution.”
A bird’s song is very specific and can make or break a bird’s ability to get its own territory, the resources in that territory and attract a female.
“Bird song is very important behavior for them especially for their nest success,” she said.
Sanchez is conducting research in nine growing cities within Weld County: Greeley, Evans, Briggsdale, Windsor, La Salle, Ault, Severance, Windsor and Eaton. She is also working with the U.S. Forest Service to access areas in the Pawnee National Grassland. All previous research on urban ecology and bird songs has been conducted in well-developed cities, such as New York City, Boston, District of Columbia and in the state of California.
“There have been very few studies done in recently urbanized areas that are growing rapidly,” Sanchez said. “This gives us an opportunity to see the amount of time in terms of increased noise and light pollution in a growing urban area it takes before birds start changing their behaviors.”
Sanchez and others venture out in the mornings to record bird songs in those cities, follow the birds to their nests and monitor those nests for the season. In addition, she also traps, tags and releases birds for identification purposes as well as installs noise recorders and light-measuring devices to collect additional data.
Her research is a community science project where she is fully dependent on community members visiting her website, UrbanBirdNerd.com, and submitting nest reports if they find a nest in their yard.
“Contribute to my project! We come and monitor the nest in your yard throughout the season as well as measure noise and light pollution in the surrounding area,” Sanchez said. “I’ve loved every person who I’ve got to meet over the past three years in doing this.”
Because of her passion in teaching, Sanchez plans to stick in academia and advocate for underrepresented groups in the area of science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) after she finishes her dissertation in spring of 2022.
“I really believe that offering paid undergraduate research experiences is the first step in increasing diversity in academia,” she said. “I really want to dedicate myself in finding paid opportunities for undergraduates because that money opens the door for more people, specifically people of color and underrepresented groups, to take on more of those positions.”
Sanchez prides herself in being a first-generation Latina student in STEM and wants to support diverse students in getting more involved in STEM.
“Because I’m considered a ‘white-passing Mexican,’ I haven’t experienced as many barriers as others,” she said, “But I’m proud to say that I’m a Mexican in academia.”
Sanchez chose to pursue her Ph.D. in UNC’s Biological Education program because of the independence the program gives her to research what she’s interested in while still being trained in pedagogy methods.
“I feel lucky that I get to do the research that I’m really interested in, which is urban ecology/behavior, and how UNC offers the ability to do that is incredible and is the big reason why I came to UNC,” she said. “My advisor has been so awesome in giving me a lot of freedom in what I’m interested in studying as well as being very supportive. I also had incredible teaching mentors: Emily Holt and Rob Reinsvold, who have really helped me come into teaching and teach me how I fit in the teaching realm.
“The Graduate Student Association (GSA) has also been incredible, and I love being involved in the GSA as they are so supportive with my ideas and in funding to attend conferences as well as in some of my research.”
She is originally from West Valley City, Utah, and received her bachelor’s degree in Biology from Westminster College in Salt Lake City in 2014.
Sanchez’s research interests include urban ecology, behavioral ecology, STEM education and inquiry-based learning. She has been named a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Honorable Mention as well as the Zoological Lighting Institute’s Photodiversity grant recipient. Her research is funded by the Zoological Lighting Institute, Colorado Field Ornithologists, American Ornithological Society and UNC’s College of Natural and Health Science fund and Biology Department.
—Written by Katie Corder; photos courtesy of Sanchez