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"Had I asked myself in high school if I'd end up working with birds for so long — and working towards a Ph.D. for it — I never saw that coming."

“Had I asked myself in high school if I’d end up working with birds for so long — and working towards a Ph.D. for it — I never saw that coming.

It started when I was seven and my mom worked at the Tracy Aviary doing ticket sales and brought my sister and me. We’d run around there all day. We knew where all the duck nests were, and we’d help clean out the emu and turkey vulture enclosures. Eventually, my mom got into bird rehab. Within a couple of years, our house turned into a full-on bird house — in the summers, we’d have anywhere from 20 up a few hundred injured or orphaned birds.

That’s when I started raising pigeons. I’m not sure originally why I was so drawn to them, maybe it was their cute squeaks or their yellow baby down, but that was always my favorite bird. I raised my first pigeon in third grade, and I liked the responsibility of taking care of them. Raising my pet birds and watching the wild ones that were in rehab was really important for me.

I’m a first-generation college student, and college was never really talked about in my family. But in high school, I was lucky to have an awesome biotech teacher who helped me get internships in labs at the U. When I applied here, I wanted to get back into a lab right away. I was introduced to Mike Shapiro and joined his lab, and the first thing I did was catalogue the hundreds of different breeds and their traits. The diversity was striking — there are pigeon breeds with head crests, feathered feet, even different flying behaviors! I’d grown up going to dog shows, cat shows and horse races. But I’d never been to a pigeon show. Most people don’t know how diverse pigeons really are. Now, I get to research the genetic basis for the incredible variation in this species and hope that what we learn can inform us about the molecular basis of similar traits in other species.”

Anna Vickrey, research assistant and doctoral candidate, Department of Biology, Pigeon Genetics Lab


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