For many young birders, the chance to visit the Cornell Lab of Ornithology is the holy grail when it comes to avian science. The Lab is where the birder blends with the scientist and is the hub for some of the most advanced research and creative thought in ornithology.
In the summer of 2016, I had the incredible opportunity to visit the Lab the first time as a part of the Cornell Lab’s Young Birder Event. High school students across the country (and even the world!) had the opportunity to apply for the Event in March and 16 were selected to come visit the Lab for an extended weekend to meet the Lab’s staff and see their work behind the scenes. Needless to say, I had an incredible time making lifelong friends and investigating future career possibilities. My weekend at the Lab changed me… I was no longer satisfied being a birder but I wanted to devote my career to a life of conservation.
The Cornell Lab of Ornithology is also not the only aspect of Cornell University that attracts my interest. Cornell University is a superior academic school and is considered an ivy league along with other colleges along the Eastern Seaboard. I love that the school focuses on diversity in its students even more than academics like in some of the other Ivies. Diversity, in this case, does not only refer to one’s race but the variety of interests and unique personalities of student applicants.
Early in the morning of July 22, my mom, sister, and I embarked on our 500-mile journey from Columbus, Ohio to Ithaca, New York. Since I had my license, I drove much of the stretch and marveled how the landscape turned from flat and urban to misty and mountainous. After nearly eight hours, Ithaca was finally in sight. I could easily see why it had previously been voted the number one college town in the U.S.; at the base of the mountain was a scenic city with winding roads and waterfalls and nested at Ithaca’s peak were the white and grey buildings of Cornell University. Ithaca is also located near Lake Cayuga, one of the famous finger lakes of New York State. After taking in the sites and a nice dinner, we checked into our hotel room at a Best Western. The next day would be my official college visit and I was going to need plenty of sleep to put my best forward!
After a quick bite to eat, we drove to the Cornell Campus. An important aspect of my visit (and somewhat debilitating one) was that I had broken my foot the week prior to my trip. Having my foot caged and injured in a plastic boot was an annoyance but at least it did grant my family and I access to great parking. We drove right up to the Biotechnology building which was the location of the Undergraduate Admissions Presentation. The entire hour flew by as a clutter of admission papers was thrown at me and I scrambled down notes on my pad. The things that stuck out the most to me about the presentation were how involved Cornell’s undergraduates were in research and the opportunities for student exchange and research trips were unparalleled by any other school I had visited.
I had a second presentation in the same room for the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture (CALS) which is the specific college that I am most interested in applying too. CALS is unique in that it is part of an ivy league college but is also a land grant. Therefore, many of the CALS’ majors tend to be more applied research rather than the College of Arts and Sciences. A few of the majors that intrigue me the most include Biological Sciences, Molecular Biology, and Environment and Sustainability. I would have the option to double major or even in minor in other subjects such as Spanish and Fine Arts.
After a morning of presentations, my family and I got to eat in the Cornell Store cafe. After buying a few souvenirs, we hopped back in the car to drive to the other side of campus for our tour. Unfortunately, we proceeded to dodge rain most of the walk and I had to stop partially through the tour because of my leg, but nevertheless I was awed by the elegance of the architecture and I was excited to see real Cornellian students walking across campus.
Finally, after we left our tour, we drove off campus a few miles north of Ithaca to the Cornell Lab of Ornithology to meet with Lab staff and professors. The Cornell Lab is separated by distance from the university and is entirely self-funding but technically is an extension of the College of Life Sciences and Agriculture. The Lab building is nested right in the middle of Sapsucker Woods and overlooks a lake and wetland habitat. The inside has a spacious visitor center with the opportunity to see displays and movies showing the Lab’s most recent breakthroughs. It also has the famous Wall of Birds which depicts paintings of species from every single bird family in the world. The building even has its own Wild Birds Unlimited store!
The first person I met with was Jessie Barry. I was going to have the opportunity to also meet with her husband, Chris Wood, but he had left earlier that morning for a ‘short meeting’ in Quito, Ecuador. I got to know Jessie and Chris well as the leaders of the Young Birders Event I attended as a freshman and I was surprised she still had the drawing of the Yellow-bellied Sapsucker I created on her desk. Jessie told me about her job as an Assistant Audio Curator for the Lab’s Macaulay Library, a database with now over eight million media in it! She is also a Bird ID expert and programmer which is how she also works as a Project Leader for the new Merlin App. My most important questions were to help me make decisions between the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) and CALS as well as what specific major I would choose. The most interesting thing she told me is that the Lab worked with undergraduates from all the different colleges of Cornell to use their variety of knowledge and passion.
I also had the opportunity to meet with Dr. David Bonter after my appointment with Jessie Barry. He is an ornithologist primarily interested in ‘migration and survival’, a Project Leader for Feederwatch, and Director of the Citizen Science program at the Lab. He is considered the top person at the Lab in getting undergraduates at Cornell involved in research at the Cornell Lab. He amongst others at the Lab even hold an ornithology seminar in the fall for the purpose of giving students the opportunity to connect with those leading projects and searching for young researchers. On top of being a Citizen Science Director, he also teaches classes in Avian Ecology and helps students involved at the Lab getting started in their own Independent Research projects. At the end of our discussion, I got to show him my artwork and research through Project Nestwatch. He offered me opportunities to possibly get some of my artwork published through the Lab and a connection with Robyn Bailey, the Director of Nestwatch.
My final meeting of the day was with Dr. Irby Lovette, Director of the Fuller Evolutionary Biology program. Some of his work includes the use and generation of phylogenetic trees, the gene flow of populations, and the study of genetic information that will help conserve birds and other vertebrates. He also helps teach the ornithology seminar in the fall and Tropical Field Ecology. On the wall behind his desk were pictures of each of the trips his Field Ecology class had taken. He told me about each one of the locations he and his students had visited including Patagonia, Antarctica, and even the Galapagos. The incredible aspect of those trips is that the majority of the attendees were actually undergraduates!!! Dr. Lovette is also a leader in Citizen Science at the Lab and a former academic counselor for Cornell so he was extremely helpful in application advice. He was kind enough to even stay later to help us through Cornell’s confusing system of Early Decision and application process. The most important thing I got from my visit at Cornell was that the Lab and even Cornell as a whole caters to its undergraduate and puts a research focus on them. I found this very unusual because many of the other colleges I have visited seemed to have left much of the research and opportunity to graduate students.
The whole day and trip sped by so fast I had barely been able to keep up with the pace. My mind was spinning with ideas, deadlines, and all the things to come! Cornell University is an incredible environment for young, aspiring biologists and that was made extremely clear to me during my college visit. Even my sister, who has always felt a slight disdain to my interest in birds, left saying to me “Wow, I think I might actually want to study ornithology now!” My mom, meanwhile, was tearing up a bit at the thought of her baby moving so far from home. In the end, we all agreed that the opportunities for me at Cornell are unparalleled in terms of the undergraduate focus and the ornithology lab.
Cornell is currently one of my top college choices as I work on my Common Application this fall. There are still many unanswered questions and variables on whether I will even be admitted to Cornell, which major would best suit me, and how my family and I would manage to pay for such an expensive education. Despite these obstacles, I am committed to working hard to achieve my passion and dream. Let the work begin!
Anna Rose is a rising senior at Bishop Watterson high school and she currently has plans to major in either Biological Sciences or Molecular Biology. She is also an avid photographer, a member of the Central Chapter of the Ohio Young Birders Club, and an aspiring artist.