Guest post by Madeleine Gonzalez, NC School of Science and Math

Long before she was a scientist, Irene Liu was an animal lover, cutting coupons for food for the cats and dogs that she wished she had, admiring birds, and even subscribing to the famous Ranger Rick magazine. Naturally her interest would stem from this passion, leading to her exciting career in evolutionary biology.

Irene Liu

Irene Liu gently handling a captured bird during some fieldwork in a mangrove swamp. (Photo courtesy of Irene Liu)

Today she uses birds to answer questions that are applicable across different systems and organisms.  At the University of Maryland, she began with questions like, “Do birds have dialects?” and today, as a graduate student at Duke University, she investigates the extra-pair mating habits of blackbirds.

“We know that birds are famous for infidelity,” she says. ” Within one breeding season you can see mom and dad and baby birds.  They look like they are one family, but actually mom and dad are off mating with other individuals and will then raise together these chicks in this nest,” she describes.  Irene Liu works to understand the benefits of infidelity in bird populations, exploring how patterns vary on frequency.

Between the fieldwork, the lab work, and the occasional, tedious computational work, Irene Liu has had some extraordinary experiences.

Working around the people with similar drive and interests, she has thrived as a young scientist.

She loves her field work. “Getting out to these isolated places that most people don’t get to see is a real privilege, and seeing nature just happening as if I am not even there.”  She plays a fun game of catching and outsmarting the birds as she collects samples and records her observations, which may not always be particularly easy.  In fact, certain obstacles have been particularly devastating.

One time while returning from the Bahamas, her summer collections were seized and incinerated at the airport after failing to comply with US regulations and not being informed of the necessary permits beforehand. However, she returned in the following year to collect an even better sample, thoroughly learning a lesson the hard way.

A redwing blackbird that fell into Irene's clutches sports his new ankle band.

A redwing blackbird that fell into Irene’s clutches sports his new ankle band.

“I have become the obsessive person that will call the government agencies and check,” she says.  It has made her the permit expert within the department and inspired a seminar.

For other young or aspiring scientists, Liu advises, “Pick something that makes you want to get out of bed every morning, but being happy does not mean denying that there are going to be challenges and obstacles in the way.”

Even though an event such as her experience in the Bahamas can be utterly discouraging and disappointing, it is the passion that will drive the progress and ambition.  It is important to remember that there is a time to worry about the future and there is a time to work, Liu said. The future is overwhelming sometimes with a given task at hand, but it’s important to not lose perspective.  Even for basic research, sometimes people demand tangible immediate benefits, but that is not guaranteed.

“Our solutions to the world’s greatest problems will surely come from the most unexpected places.  You don’t have linear consequences,” Liu said.

Mady Gonzales interviewed Irene Liu and wrote this post as part of a Science Communication seminar led by NCSSM Dean of Science Amy Sheck.