Alumni guest blog by Kylee DiMaggio: Grassland songbirds and marine mammals have more in common than you might think….

When I was in high school, attending the dreaded career fairs, I remember feeling intense conflict within myself. In my mind there were two paths and I had to choose only one: I was either going to be a dentist or a marine biologist. Strange, I know. I grew up watching my parents struggle to make ends meet, and I desperately wanted to break out of those struggles as an adult. I was conflicted between giving myself the life I craved growing up and pursuing my passion.  Without the lectures about pursuing happiness from my high school band teacher, I would definitely be a dentist. Instead, I am entering a career in marine mammal science.

Kylee DiMaggio (Environmental Science and Marine Science class of 2019′) with a male Bobolink in Vermont. Kylee is a research assistant at the University of Florida in the School of Natural Resources and Environment, pursing a Masters in Interdisciplinary Ecology.

The path to where I am now was not at all easy. There were several times during my undergraduate career that I genuinely thought I would have to drop my marine science major (darn you, organic chemistry!). Other times, I felt like my dream of working with marine mammals was unattainable. I truly would not be here without the constant support and guidance from Noah, even through the MANY times I cried in his office, stressed about my future. Noah taught me many lessons and helped me to better balance my professional and personal stresses. I’d like to think I taught him something as well: always keep tissues for crying students in your office!

I met Noah in the spring of 2016 in his Conservation and Preservation class in which he spoke enthusiastically about his summer field work in Vermont. As a double major in marine biology and environmental science, I saw this as an opportunity to expand my skill set in the terrestrial environment. At this time, I really had no interest or background knowledge in ornithology. Now, I have a Bobolink tattooed on my calf! Noah took a leap of faith with me, and I dove headfirst into his grassland project, just 30 minutes from my hometown.

I spent two full summers on the project and returned as often as I could in the following years. The first was a whirlwind. I had never actively watched birds and there I was on my first day with a bird in my hand! Don’t get me wrong, it was hard work and sometimes I went weeks without finding a nest, but there was something so empowering about opening up the grass and seeing those tiny naked birds.

To say this project changed my life is not an exaggeration (Noah is reading this and thinking: there Kylee goes with another sappy thank you). I know it seems unlikely that working with birds had a direct correlation to working with marine mammals now; if you had told me this was my path in high school, I would never have believed you. During my time on this project, I learned what my interests were outside of my intended study species.

Something I wish had resonated with me more as an undergraduate student was that good things take time. This is yet another lesson Noah taught me. As a senior, I was anxious to enter graduate school right away. When that opportunity didn’t present itself, honestly, I felt like a failure. Now, I see it as a blessing. If I had settled, I would not have found the opportunity that I have now. Which is a project that will propel me into a career studying what I am interested in AND working with my target species.

Kylee DiMaggio banding songbirds in the Kakamega Forest with the Kakamega Environmental Education Programme (KEEP) in western Kenya in 2019.

Beyond the technical skills and career advice this project and Noah taught me, I found a strong system of support in the birding community. I met people that are now some of my most treasured friends and gained a huge appreciation for the birds along the way. Sharing my love for birds has been a joy and during my study abroad in Kenya, I was proudly “the birder” of the group. I’ll leave off with a few lessons I learned from this project and the birds: 1) Never settle, good things take time; 2) Take the chance to experience new things, even if they don’t seem to be up your ally; 3) ALWAYS wear your rain pants!

Kylee DiMaggio banding songbirds in Kenya in 2019.