Sarah Winnicki
Sarah Winnicki. Photo provided by Sarah Winnicki.

Sarah Winnicki (@SKWinnicki) is a biology student completing her Master’s degree at Kansas State University and looking forward to starting her PhD at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign in the fall of 2019. She currently studies the growth of baby birds, untangling the complicated effects of food availability, predator risk, and cowbird brood parasitism the development of grassland songbird nestlings. Check out her website at www.sarahwinnicki.com!

1 Are you an early bird or night owl?

Night Owl

2 Are you pro- or anti-pun?

Anti-pun

3 Do you have any pets?

Yes! I have two cats (a fluffy calico named Squeaky and a tabby named Bluestem) and a rat named Ashla. I am really looking forward to adopting a dog when I start my next graduate program!

4 Do you have any science-themed home decor?

Yep! I love taking photos of the birds that I work with and the prairie I work on, and I print out my favorite ones on canvas and put them all over my house. I have a wall of bison art (I work on bison-grazed pastures) and some amazing bird art from Drawing 10,000 Birds and Bird Strips.

5 Do you prefer cooking or baking?

Baking

6 Do you prefer sweet or savory?

Savory

7 Do you speak any other languages?

I wish! My Spanish is still really shaky and I could never get my tongue around Klingon.

8 If you could switch professions, what would you do?

I would study history– I have an undergraduate degree in history (I studied the gendered portrayal of sanctity/holiness in the Dark Ages)

9 If you could switch science fields, what field would you want to work in?

Geology! I love Earth processes and the concept of deep time.

10 If you got a plane ticket right now, where would it go?

Costa Rica! My labmate and friend Elsie Shogren (@e_shogren) studies dancing manakins (birds) in the rainforests of Costa Rica, and I have never had a chance to visit her while she is working there.

11 If you had one superpower, what would it be?

The ability to convince people to care about habitat conservation and social justice!

12 Is there anything you strongly recommend we watch and/or read and/or listen to?

I really enjoy birding/adventure books by Kenn Kaufman, whimsical happy shows like Brooklyn Nine-Nine and Parks and Recreation, obscure Star Wars novels, and fun movies with empowered women like Captain Marvel.

13 It’s your day off. What do you want to do?

I would go out to watch birds in the morning, go on Pokemon Go adventures with my partner, and curl up with my pets to watch TV or read.

14 What are three things you can’t live without?

Birds, caffeine, and the support of my friends

15 What beverage gives you life?

Monster Energy teas (I know they are bad for me but oh well)

16 What book did you read in school that positively shaped you?

I hated Grapes of Wrath when I first read the book, but reading it again for another class gave me more perspective not only on the human condition but also on my ability to grow as a reader and learner.

17 What did you want to be be when you grew up?

I wanted to be a professor and still do, though at first I wanted to teach paleontology, then history, and now biology!

18 What drives you and keeps you going?

I really love birds! I have been obsessed with them since I was a toddler– learning about them, seeing them, saving them. I especially love the young birds I study. I feel like a proud parent watching them grow up!

19 What got you excited in science?

I like watching bird behavior and I always wanted to know why– why are some birds brightly colored, why do some birds migrate, why do birds build different kinds of nests, etc. When I started to ask these questions I learned that, in many cases, scientists still don’t have a good understanding of why animals do what they do and how those behaviors evolved. I decided that I wanted to know the answers enough that I would pursue those questions myself.

20 What excites you about science now?

I am able to spend every day watching birds, solving puzzling code problems, teaching students, answering questions about birds, sharing what I know with others, and/or inspiring folks with science communication.

21 What is a guilty pleasure of yours?

I try not to feel guilty about anything that makes me happy, but I guess you could count my constant consumption of caffeinated beverages.

22 What is a secret talent of yours?

I have a relatively good spatial memory, so I can walk out into the open prairie and find tiny hidden bird nests without my GPS or maps.

23 What is your favorite game?

I spend a lot of time trying to convince people to play the Birding Game with Roger Tory Peterson, an obscure board game that invites contestants to identify birds and answer questions about their life history.

24 What is the last book you read?

I am currently reading Kenn Kaufman’s A Season on the Wind, a book about the magic of bird migration and Northwest Ohio (my home away from home).

25 What is one of the best pieces of advice you’ve received?

The best advice I received was to not be ashamed of promoting yourself and your work (on social media, on job applications, etc.). You can’t expect future employers and research funding agencies to understand how awesome you are if you are constantly trying to be humble and hide it. Embrace yourself!

26 What is something you’ve always wanted to try but you’ve been too scared to do?

I’m really bad at going up to people that I think are amazing and telling them how I feel. Really cool scientists, awesome young activists, folks with cool outfits, people with lovely singing voices– I want to compliment them but anxiety almost always gets the best of me.

27 What is the best advice for your 18 year old self?

Stop listening to folks when they say there is one way to be a scientist or professional. We hear all sorts of advice all the time that is often especially gendered– don’t wear dresses or too much makeup, don’t chat too much, don’t dye your hair, don’t use too many exclamation points in emails… I internalized it all, thinking that there was one right way to perform the role of ecologist (baggy field pants, neutral colors, quiet and studious). Now I come to professional meetings in fluffy dresses, makeup, and colorful hair, allowing myself to be as enthusiastic and talkative as I want. To the best of my knowledge it has never hurt my ability to get a job, grant, or award (plus if a potential employer doesn’t like it, they probably aren’t someone I’d be happy working for anyway). Runner-up: Taking breaks and taking care of yourself is not a reward for hard work, but rather a necessary measure to make sure you can continue to work hard when necessary!

28 What is the best way to de-stress?

Find something that reminds you of the simple, universal beauty of the world around you. For me, that is watching birds feed their babies, watching my kitten explore the living room, watching students discover some neat animal behavior, smiling at babies and watching them smile back, etc.

29 What is the last thing you watched?

I just finished up the last season of the show Community, a fun show that provides a useful perspective on ways that very different folks with contradictory opinions can still be happy friends.

30 What is the weirdest thing you’ve had in your bag?

I collect a lot of bird carcasses as specimens for laboratories and as tissue samples for my genetic work, so I carry dead birds around a lot.

31 What is your favorite animal?

I can’t pick a favorite bird (I have a list, including my most beloved study species (Grasshopper Sparrows and Brown-headed Cowbirds), my favorite common bird to see (Turkey Vultures), and my favorite bird to search for (Black Skimmers)), so I generally just skip birds altogether and say my favorite animal is a bison.

32 What is your favorite book?

I always carry the Sibley bird guide with me, but I also enjoy science fiction/fantasy novels like the Heir to the Empire trilogy by Timothy Zahn and the Song of Ice and Fire series by George R.R. Martin.

33 What is your favorite comfort food?

My mom makes what we call “cabbage and noodles,” a family take on Hungarian Haluski with cabbage, egg noodles, and an unholy amount of butter.

34 What is your favorite day of the year?

It is a tie between all the days in early May when the colorful Wood Warblers are moving through the continental U.S. and the Grasshopper Sparrow babies are starting to hatch.

35 What is your favorite plant?

I love false indigo, a beautiful purple/blue flowering plant native to the tallgrass prairie. When it dries up the leaves turn black!

36 What is your favorite science fact?

If human babies grew as fast as the baby birds I study, they would weigh 70 pounds and stand four foot tall when they are one week old!

37 What is your favorite season?

Summer

38 What is your favorite smell?

The smell of the prairie right before it rains– dusty from the storm’s wind, flowery, and earthy with a hint of the clean rain to come.

39 What is your favorite sound?

I love the sound of prairie birds singing (I really like the prairie I guess) and baby birds begging for food. My advisor, Dr. Alice Boyle (@birdfiddler), and her band STEAM! make instrumental music inspired by the prairie that I listen to when I can’t be outside.

40 What is your favorite thing about yourself?

I’m really passionate about everything. I’m in love with my work, with the birds, with the prairie, with the television shows I am watching and the books I am reading, everything. I was told that I was too enthusiastic and that I needed to hide my excitement to be more professional, but in the end my work, my science communication, and my mental health really benefit from embracing the love I have for the world around me.

41 What is your favorite word (in any language)?

Brood parasite! Technically two words, but isn’t it so cool that some birds have evolved a system where they lay their eggs in other birds’ nests??

42 What is your proudest moment?

I’m very grateful for the neat awards and grants that I have received, but I can’t pinpoint any particular moment when I am more proud of myself than I am when I am just living day to day. I struggle a lot with my mental health (bipolar/schizoaffective disorder), so every single day, every relationship that I have, and everything that I accomplish (from sending a single email to winning fellowships) is more than anything I had once thought to hope for.

43 What kind of tree would you be?

A redwood! I am a prairie biologist and trees are constantly encroaching on the habitat my birds need, so I am not a big fan of trees, yet even I was moved to tears the first time I stood among the coastal redwoods.

44 What’s the best thing about where you live?

I love the big sky in Kansas!

45 Tell us something we probably don’t know.

We are learning that fierce competition with cowbird brood parasites (large baby birds almost three times as big as the sparrow babies with whom they share a nest) does not change the growth of the tiny baby sparrows at all! We had expected that the baby sparrows would grow much slower because they would not receive as much food (which is the case with larger Dickcissel babies when they compete with cowbirds) but somehow the sparrows manage to pull it off. How? Our project (#PrairieBabies) is trying to figure that out!

46 Who would you like to see 46 Questions interview next?

Alice Boyle (@birdfiddler) could share some really neat perspective on alternative paths to becoming a scientist (as she was a professional musician first); Emily Williams (@wayfaringwilly) is a great example of an awesome scientist currently working outside of academia; Nick Barts (@Nickthyologist) does really neat science while managing to dedicate his time and energy to teaching and student well-being; Sam Sharpe (@PlantRoleModels) works tirelessly on their work and advocating for the rights of LGBTQ+ folks; and Lauren Konrade (@LaurenKonrade) asks awesome questions about sunflowers while simultaneously leading science communication efforts on campus