Clara Howell and I meet to chat on a lovely October afternoon under the trees of the Bryan Center Plaza. In my final Fall at Duke as an undergraduate, I am happy to connect with Clara, a third-year PhD student in the biology department. We meet on the auspices that I want to learn more about her trek through academia and her current work in the Nowicki lab for this very profile piece. “I’ve never been written about before,” Clara says to me. I suspect that, though most grad students’ work is totally cool, most of them never have.
Clara talks with her hands as she lays out her current work for me. Right now, she is studying sexual selection and infection in different bird species. Duke biology professor Steve Nowicki, one of Clara’s advisors, has done a lot of work on honesty in communication systems between animals. Most species, Clara tells me, rely on honest signals for mate choice, because it benefits females to be able to discern between low- and high-quality mates, and it benefits high quality males to be able to advertise their quality. In general, animal signals should be reliable. Clara’s other advisor, biology professor and chair of evolutionary anthropology Susan Alberts, specializes in life history trade-offs of signaling: Animals only have so many resources and they must make choices about how to use them. A male bird, that is, for example, fighting an infection, cannot devote as many resources to sexual signaling as an uninfected male.
“But,” Clara says, with an increasingly bright smile on her face, “There is an interesting period of time right after an animal is exposed to a potential pathogen where it’s not immediately clear if the bird’s sexual signals will be honest. This is because it could be most advantageous for animals – especially males – to continue devoting every resource possible for sexual signaling, even if it means ignoring a pathogen that will eventually kill them.”
The punchline is, the male swamp sparrows and zebra finches that Clara studies might benefit from “lying” about being sick. By ignoring an arising infection and devoting one’s energy to maintaining strong sexual signaling, these male birds may be tricking females into thinking they are perfectly healthy mates with no sickness in sight. So far, Clara has been recording the songs of male birds following an injection of bacterial cell walls to stimulate their immune response. “The real kicker will be when I test females and see how and if they discern between the songs of sick and healthy males.”
“When we started to social distance at the beginning of the pandemic in March 2020, before any of us knew how long this would last, I wondered whether other animals do the same thing,” Clara said. When COVID-19 put a pause to Clara’s original work, she found inspiration in the pandemic itself to think about cues of sickness in other animal species besides our own – an idea she saw other scientists starting to buzz about.
Before grad school, Clara studied neuroscience and English at Tulane University in New Orleans. She worked in an evolutionary biology lab with former Duke Ph.D. Elizabeth Derryberry beginning in sophomore year and did her honor’s thesis in Derryberry’s lab on connections between novel foraging tasks and mate preferences in zebra finches. And Clara loved her advisor so much that she decided to follow Derryberry to the University of Tennessee as a grad student in the same year she earned her bachelor’s degree.
“What about your English major?” I asked Clara. “I was a very nerdy, book-ish child,” she replied, “I wanted to read more in college.” Her background in English has turned out to be quite useful for her work in the sciences. “Having really great scientific ideas and not being able to tell people about them is pretty useless,” she said with a short laugh. These English skills have been useful for grant writing too. That’s right – I asked Clara to tell me about the less glamorous parts of being a grad student.
“The process of finding money is something I wish people talked about more,” Clara said as she wrapped her long ponytail through her hands. The through line: “If you want to do your own ideas, you have to find your own money,” she stated plainly. The process of finding money takes up a considerable amount of her time and most grants she has applied for she does not end up getting. But because she enjoys writing, she says it’s not so bad. Though Clara wishes departments were more open about research funding policies and that there were more internal grants, she’s never thought of grant writing as a waste of time. “A lot of the time when I write grants, I’m really clarifying ideas. It’s definitely helpful,” she tells me.
Clara’s advice to anyone interested in a science Ph.D. is to truly consider getting a master’s degree beforehand. “It might not be the right choice for everyone,” Clara said, “But I found the transition from undergrad to graduate school really difficult. I spent most of my master’s degree just learning how to be a grad student and figuring out how academia works, which meant that when I started my Ph.D. I could focus much more on what I wanted to research.” The time in her master’s program also helped her home in on her central interests in biology. And oh, she also recommends noise-canceling headphones, her “favorite possession.”
Although she says she is still working on figuring out her work-life balance, Clara likes being able to set her own schedule and how each week is so different from the next. Outside of lab, Clara claims she is the stereotype of ecology and evolutionary biology grad students: She enjoys rock-climbing, board games, and craft breweries. You might have to go to the Biological Sciences building to find Clara. “I haven’t broached the other areas of campus,” she said, “Undergrads are sort of scary. They use language I don’t understand, and they are all so stylish. They make me feel old.” Old at 26, the life of the biology Ph.D.