Written by Clarissa Rous (Class of 2016)
Dr. Jessica Malisch is one of our newest Biology faculty. She currently teaches at the Claremont Colleges in southern California, but she will be making the cross-country trek to St. Mary’s to join the Biology department in Fall 2016.
Can you tell me about your research?
I research ecological and evolutionary physiology: how animals work within environmental and evolutionary constraints. In particular, I focus on hormones in white-crowned sparrows, which have a unique decision to make during the breeding season. They breed at about 10,000 feet; the population I study is just outside Yosemite National Park. The area in which they build their nests can get entirely covered in snow. If a snowstorm is coming, they must decide whether to stay, protecting their territory and fledglings but risking death. The alternative is to fly to lower elevation for better weather, abandon the fledglings, and potentially lose their territory to other white-crowned sparrows. I’m interested in the physiological mechanism that facilitates this decision.
How will you keep up with your research at Yosemite from Maryland?
The majority of my work is done during the summer. From my current home in California, it’s a six to seven hour drive to the field site, so it can’t be done on a weekend trip anyway. At St. Mary’s, I’ll do what I do here: leave after finals in the spring, drive to Yosemite, and spend about two, two and a half months on site. Some white-crowned sparrows as well as other song birds winter in St. Mary’s County, although the population I study winters in Mexico. So I can study white-crowned sparrow behavior and physiology during the school year as well.
How did you get to where you are now, in terms of your education and training in science?
I was inspired toward a research career largely by two invited talks in my Conservation Biology class while an undergraduate at UNC Wilmington. The first speaker researched seal foraging site by analyzing the chemical content of their fat. The second, Dr. Sue Crissey, was a zoo nutritionist who would travel around the world and watch animals feed, then figure out the nutrients they got from those foods and identified how to mimic that nutrient profile with food available to zoos. I thought that both speakers research topics were really cool. Dr. Crissey helped me get an internship at the Chicago Zoo. But I realized that few nutritionists did they type of research Dr. Crissey did and mainly read and utilized published research to make informed decisions for zoo animal diets. I realized that I wanted to conduct research and chose to attend UC Riverside for a PhD in ecological physiology. My thesis research was on exercise physiology in mice. To do certain hormone assays. I visited a lab at UT Austin. The professor there, Creagh Breuner, and I had similar research interests and I ended up doing my postdoc with her, on white-crowned sparrows at Yosemite. I have continued to utilize the Yosemite field site as the lead researcher following my post-doc and subsequent employment with the Claremont colleges.
What does your research team currently look like?
Mostly undergraduate students from the Claremont Colleges, occasionally a few from U Montana. This summer I have two Claremont students, and hopefully a couple St. Mary’s students, too!
Can you tell me about the daily reality of working at the Yosemite field site?
We stay at a cabin that’s deep in the woods and off the grid. We get up at 6:30 am, gather the field equipment, and drive to the field site, which is a meadow at an elevation of 10,000 feet. To handle the ice and snow, we put on snowshoes, sunglasses, and plenty of sunscreen. If it’s a really heavy snow year, we have to dig stairs to get from the road to the top of the meadow!
Each year I place about twenty wire mesh Potter traps in the meadow. The traps are locked in the open position so birds can wander in and out freely. We unlock the spring doors to activate the traps, fill them with birdseed, and wait about thirty minutes. Then we check the traps and band and measure any birds we find. We take blood samples to assay for hormone responses. To get a baseline before stress hormones kick in, we have to rush to the trap and get a blood sample within three minutes of capture! Then we typically keep the bird captive for another fifteen or thirty minutes and take another blood sample to test for stress hormones.
Some birds are “trap-philic”: they tend to get caught in the traps often. We recently investigated whether “trap-philic” birds enter the trap more quickly, and whether their stress response is lower than other birds. We found that they do actually have a dampened stress response when trapped.
What classes will you teach in the fall? Which are you most excited to teach?
This Fall, I am teaching Comparative Physiology and BIOL101: Biology of Stress. I’m thrilled about the Biology of Stress class because it very much matches my research interests and I have wanted to design this course for a long time. In the future, I’d love to teach Ecological and Evolutionary Physiology or Behavioral Endocrinology.
At St. Mary’s, the students have an unofficial slogan “Keep St. Mary’s Weird.” Do you have any endearing quirks that fit with this motto?
I’m very into biking, so I’ve bought something called an Xtracycle. The back wheel is half the diameter of a normal wheel so that it can hold more weight without collapsing. There’s a bench across the back wheel that can hold all sorts of things. I often use it to carry my kids, who are nine, six, and three years old. You’ll definitely see me biking around campus with a pile of little boys in tow!
Is there anything I didn’t mention that you’d like to add?
I was on the crew team at UNC Wilmington. I remember I’d go to practice, come home exhausted, and still be able to fit in a nap before my 8 am class. I loved it. So I’m excited to return to a school with a crew team!
Content has been edited for conciseness and clarity.