Dr. Autumn-Lynn Harrison is Program Manager of the Migratory Connectivity Project and a Research Ecologist at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. She is also an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Duke University and an Affiliate Professor at George Mason University. Autumn-Lynn received her B.S. degrees in Environmental Science and Fisheries and Wildlife Science from Virginia Tech, a Graduate Diploma of Science in Tropical Marine Ecology and Fisheries Science from James Cook University in Australia, and her Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology from the University of California, Santa Cruz. She worked for the Society for Conservation Biology for 11 years prior to accepting a postdoctoral fellowship with the Institute for Parks at Clemson University. Next, Autumn-Lynn joined the team at the Smithsonian Institution in 2014. In our interview, she shares more about her life and science.
People Behind the Science Podcast Show Notes
Life Outside of Science (2:16)
When she’s not working, Autumn-Lynn loves to be out on the water paddling in a canoe or kayak. She also enjoys watching college football as well as playing the flute and piccolo in a community band.
The Scientific Side (3:06)
Autumn-Lynn’s research focuses on the migration of marine animals such as seabirds and seals. In order to help manage and conserve these animals, she uses data from small tracking tags to understand where these animals go, the habitats they depend on, and the places that are important to them.
A Dose of Motivation (5:15)
“The tide always changes.”
What Got You Hooked on Science? (8:12)
Her interest in nature and the environment started early, but Autumn-Lynn had a wide variety of interests growing up. In addition to thinking about becoming a scientist, she considered pursuing a career as a fashion designer or a history teacher. Ultimately her passion for nature and being outdoors led her to pursue science. Autumn-Lynn signed up to major in environmental science with a plan to work as an ecologist investigating estuaries (the transition zones between river and marine environments). However, a study abroad project in Kenya studying the management of migratory species sparked her interest in animal migration.
The Low Points: Failures and Challenges (20:05)
Like many PhD students, Autumn-Lynn faced challenges in completing her dissertation research. A few years into her degree program, she faced uncertainty about whether she would be able to do the project she wanted to work on. There were also concerns that her project was being scooped at one point, and it was a struggle to manage all of the different personalities and levels of competition of people working on the project. Going into her PhD, Autumn-Lynn didn’t really know what academia was like and didn’t really know what she was getting into. There were moments where she was sad, upset, and felt like an outsider. However, Autumn-Lynn’s passion for the project, combined with her desire to finish what she started, helped her make it through. She also benefited from working part-time at the Society for Conservation Biology throughout her PhD program. This experience introduced her to wonderful colleagues and gave her perspective on how to tackle problems and difficult situations as a working professional.
A Shining Success! (23:51)
After completing her PhD, Autumn-Lynn published a research paper that was important for wildlife management, and she was invited to present her findings at the United Nations (UN) as part of negotiations to craft a new treaty for the oceans. This was a really meaningful success because her work was being used to inform policy-makers, develop a new treaty, and improve the management process. Presenting her work in the UN general assembly room was a surreal experience that Autumn-Lynn will never forget.
Another exciting success was the Smithsonian’s recent receipt of funding to create a new collaboration called the Shorebird Science and Conservation Collective (Shorebird Collective). Through this project, people tracking shorebirds all over the Americas can contribute data to be used immediately to inform conservation and management efforts. In many cases, it may be years before data collected are published in scientific journals and made available for use. The Shorebird Collective has so far received data from over 30 collaborators on 34 species of shorebirds, and these data are available immediately to help conserve and manage these species.
Book Recommendations (30:05)
Nancy Drew books, Ten Poems to Change Your Life by Roger Housden
Most Treasured Travel (31:57)
One of Autumn-Lynn’s favorite travel experiences involved studying marine mammals in a diamond mine in South Africa. She traveled to the De Beers diamond mine in northern South Africa with a large research team for ten days of field work collecting data on Cape fur seals. A long stretch of beach is closed to the public where the mine is located, and it is home to a large colony of Cape fur seals. The team camped on the beach surrounded by vibrant marine life, and they marveled at the chattering fur seals and their pups. The scenery was remarkable, the people were great, and Autumn-Lynn was delighted to be able to return to this site a few times over the course of a couple years for this project. Much of her current work is in Alaska, and she has also had phenomenal experiences working in the Alaskan wilderness, including a few memorable close encounters with bears!
Quirky Traditions and Funny Memories (39:03)
In a previous lab, Autumn-Lynn worked on a project studying northern elephant seals. During field work, all of the physiologists on the team carried physiology kits (“phys kits”) which were tackle boxes containing all the supplies they needed to collect samples and data from the seals. One of Autumn-Lynn’s labmates was a tall, tough field biologist who decided to decorate her phys kit with lots of sparkly stickers. It became a tradition in the group for everyone to decorate their phys kits in different ways. One day while Autumn-Lynn was working in the field with the team, they were charged by a male elephant seal, and the enormously heavy seal smashed her colleague’s sparkly phys kit into the ground. Everyone got away safely, and the juxtaposition of the huge seal and the remains of the small sparkly box was pretty funny. In her own lab, it has become a tradition to decorate their metal clipboards and other field gear with fun stickers.
Advice For Us All (43:40)
When you are facing a problem, take a step back and think about it in a professional way. Also, don’t lose who you are on your path to becoming a scientist. It is okay for a scientist to like fashion, wear high heels, and be enthusiastic about their work. Be yourself, and remember that there are ways to maintain your scientific rigor and integrity while demonstrating enthusiasm and feeling for what you are studying. Sharing your excitement for your work is the best way to get non-scientists and the general public to connect with you and your work.
Autumn-Lynn studies the migrations and habitat use of marine and coastal animals and applies scientific research to policy questions related to transboundary conservation and management. She has led field projects to track the migrations of seabirds and shorebirds breeding in the Alaskan Arctic, and seals and sea lions in South Africa and California. She has participated in many conservation initiatives, including presenting her work at United Nations negotiations to create a new treaty for the oceans. Autumn-Lynn grew up on the Eastern Shore of Maryland, USA and as a part of her work at the Smithsonian, she returned home to track the migrations of Brown Pelicans nesting on Chesapeake Bay islands all the way to Cuba. Outside of work, she has played flute and piccolo since she was young and plays in a community band in Annapolis, Maryland. Autumn-Lynn loves to kayak, ride her bike, watch Virginia Tech football, and go hiking with her husband and corgi.