How WEC Works: Katie Sieving

Dr. Katie Sieving is a full professor in the WEC Department, and the WEC graduate studies program coordinator. She teaches three classes, Wildlife Behavior and Conservation, Avian Field Research, and Research Design. Her primary research is into bird language, although students in her lab are working on a variety of avian questions.

Currently, she is focused on determining the vocabulary of chickadees and titmice and the functional context of the signals they use. Her ultimate vision is to use an expanded understanding of their vocal production and complexity for environmental monitoring..

Work

When did you know you wanted to work in ecology? Is there an origin story?

I always loved being outside, but I wasn’t particularly into birds until I finished college. I’d had a couple of great bird classes, and went on a lot of birding trips with people, and then I just wanted to get some temporary jobs for a couple years. It just seemed like all the jobs I got were about birds.

I mean, I like birds! It was fun. All my friends were birders. So it was natural to move in that direction. And once I got the conservation biology spark – tropical deforestation was my gateway conservation disaster, the one that freaked me out and turned me into an ecologist – then I put my knowledge of birds to work on the larger issues in ecology and conservation.

What’s one word that describes how you work?

Right now, in the doldrums of the semester, it has to be enthusiasm. If there’s nothing to be enthused about I don’t work. So I was thinking about it this way: I love teaching and I love my research, but on a daily basis I always have a list of tasks. Some of them are short-term tasks that I have to do today or die. Others are long-term tasks. When I try to put time in on those, I always choose the one on the list that makes me the most excited, like when a student completes a draft of their thesis or when students complete papers. I like to turn those around really quickly and see what the story is. I always want to know what the story is. Whatever the task is that has a story attached to it, I go for it first. That perks me up to do the rest of the tasks that may be harder to face.

What do you mean “what the story is”?

I like to use science to build stories! Stories about why animals do what they do, what’s the best way to approach conservation in a complex situation. I’m really just interested in the story that science tells about how things work.

What’s your favorite organism you’ve studied and why?

I think my favorite one is the chucao, this Chilean bird that I worked with.

Chucao

That was a really fun series of studies that we did, starting in the late ‘80s. Chile had just gotten rid of its dictator at that time, and I was hired to do some post-doctoral work down there. Basically, the person who hired me said, “We’re going to get on the ground and start chasing these birds down to find out their natural history and start working on conservation from there. Start working from the ground up with this bird.” Nobody even knew where they nested, so we found out where the nests were. We figured out what other constraints they had and their distribution in the landscape, what was keeping them from being super abundant in places. We published a series of papers on that.

I think I know the story of that bird more than most others, so I like it better for that reason.

And also it sounds like you got to have fun figuring it out.

Yeah! We were the first in there, really, to do field ecology. At that point, ecology was taught as a bench science in Chile because you didn’t go outside with binoculars or a collecting rifle because the military was everywhere. Students would stay inside and study models. So we took conceptually very well-trained ecology students out into the field and gave them their first real dose of field ecology. The early ‘90s were a blast in field ecology. Now it’s HUGE there, there’s a HUGE environmental movement there that’s blended with ecology. They don’t need us anymore!

What’s an unexpected experience you’ve had because of your work?

I suppose when you’re in the field in other countries it has to do with how you confront the way people live. When you meet someone out in the countryside, you might initially have judgements about them, like “Oh, he’s a farmer” or “He grows tomatoes” or “She’s collecting mushrooms and that’s not a good thing.” You might judge them, but I think the most unexpected thing that I’ve found over the years is that people who live on the land, no matter what they do, understand just as much about how it all works as ecologists, and oftentimes they know a lot more.

For example, a colleague of mine was in Chile chasing down this little cat called Oncifelis guiña. It’s an understudied animal the size of a housecat but ferocious like a Tasmanian devil. So they were catching them and finding out the first ecological knowledge about their range size and everything like that. And we had a conversation with a farmer whose property we worked on and we told him, “Yeah we just caught this cat for the first time. No one’s ever known anything about it!”

He just looked at me and said, “You North American scientists are such idiots. We know about this cat. It’s in my barn every night chasing chickens. I’ve killed hundreds of ‘em and I know all about their behavior! I know where they live, what they eat, everything about them! Why don’t you just ask me!?”

This farmer, Don Ishmael is his name, was winking at us at the same time as he was scolding us for bragging, because we were basically telling him – “what you know doesn’t matter – it’s what we scientists know that matters”. Well, Don Ishmael read me the riot act on that one and then it got to be fun because the “you scientists don’t know anything” became a joke theme during our field seasons. All the farmers starting ribbing us. We’d get our trucks stuck in the mud and one of them would harness up a team of oxen and pull us out and then joke that if we knew how to drive, they wouldn’t have to rescue us(Wink, wink).

By the end of our time there, I do recall one time that I was able to show something to Don Ishmael about the birds that he did not know. There is a large ground bird in Chile called a huet-huet (because that is the noise it makes when you surprise them) – a really charismatic bird that nests in dirt banks and tree cavities. We had found a lot of their nests but Don Ishmael had never seen one. One afternoon I showed him a huet-huet tunnel and let him peek into the nest through a little cable cam we used. He looked in the camera, and then walked all around the nest hole and stood quietly for a long time. He actually cried! They were joyful tears, though, because he said he wondered where the huethuets nested in his woods for his whole life. He thanked me quietly and, well, he didn’t rib us so much after that.

So what was unexpected to me as a young field biologist was how invested people who live on the land are in the ecological knowledge they have. That knowledge is valuable to them and they let you know.

Lifestyle

Carolina Chickadee

 

How do you manage your time?

On a good day, I have a list for short-term stuff, you know, “today or die”, then I have a list of “today would be great, but not absolutely necessary”, then I have this long-term list of “what to do when I have three hours to spare”, some time to work on manuscripts or grants that are coming up. I just boil it down to three lists.

But once, I had a grad student whose dad made a lot of money going to corporations and teaching them workshops on project management. So he gave us a mini project management lesson during a lab meeting. He had everybody bring five colors of sticky notes. We each had a wall in the conference room where we were working.

He said, “You have to think about what it takes to complete a project: all the short term, mid-term, and long-term goals that it takes.”

We each had hundreds of “stickies” up there with all these things we had to do on them: people to contact, calls to make, all the way down to when we would write it up.

That would overwhelm me. I would run away screaming if I saw that on my wall every day, so I boiled it down to three lists, and at the beginning of the day I look at them, and at the end of the day I cross them off and add new things.

How do you balance long periods in the field with your personal life?

I’ve always tried to take my spouse with me if I can. I’ve been married to people who were interested in going in the field. My first husband was a wildlife photographer, so he was always going with me. Didn’t help us stay together, but still (laughs).

But now I should say that I don’t go in the field for as long a period of time as I used to. Two to three months. I don’t have any kids either so it’s not that big a deal.

Usually David, my husband, will come in the field with me at the beginning or the end. The last time we had significant fieldwork was probably four or five years ago. We went to Chile for several months. We had a really nice trip for the first month, then I settled down to work. I just try to blend it, and not stay away too long.

What are you currently reading?

 

Other than scanning the literature daily concerning research projects , I’ve been reading the Tao Te Ching. I actually practice tai chi and, at this time in the semester when things are so hectic, I don’t have a lot of space in my head to pick up a new book and read it and keep track of it. Reading the Tao Te Ching is more like: “Focus on what’s really important. Calm down, calm your mind.”

One book I finished recently is The Invention of Nature: Alexander von Humboldt’s New World by Andrea Wulf. It’s an extraordinary story – as large in explaining the formation of evolution and ecology as a science as Darwin’s publications! It explains how Alexander von Humbolt’s work laid the foundation for Darwin’s discoveries – in fact Darwin would not have gotten to the theory of evolution without von Humboldt’s notes stacked on his bed shelf on the HMS Beagle!

And the next book on my list is Dan Brown’s Origin. I’m a fan of the Da Vinci code (everything to do with Leonardo Da Vinci actually, whether fact or fiction).

In Closing

Is there one piece of advice you would like to share with students who will read this interview?

 

There is, actually!

There’s one little book I give to all of my grad students. It’s called The Four Agreements because it’s about how to stay sane when your life is really busy and you’re interacting with a lot of people. This book teaches you where to put your energy and where not to put it. So the Four Agreements are:

1) Don’t take things personally. As a grad student you’re always getting a steady supply of criticism of your work all the time. If you don’t take it personally, you won’t worry about what other people think of you. That’s really deadly.

2) Don’t make assumptions, about what people think about you, or especially about the quality of your work. Try to stay objective. Not making assumptions is really hard, because you always think that somebody thinks something about you, and it’s probably not true at all. Somebody might seem really mean and grumpy, but it’s not at all about you. So that’s part of not taking it personally too.

3) Be impeccable with you word. This is another one that you really need to do. In order to do this, and it’s really hard because you want to say yes to everything, you want to do everything, you want to learn everything, you really need to start prioritizing right away. You want to show up for people and to show up for yourself, but you must stick to your commitments. Really commit, because you’ll feel a lot better about that, than overcommitting and feeling badly about how you show up in every other way.

4) Always do your best.

Anyway, it’s a neat little book. It has nothing to do with science but it has everything to do with success in science.

I always ask people who else they would like to see answer these questions, and you were actually Dr. Mathieu Basille’s person!

That’s so funny, and I’m honored! Let’s see, I would be interested in knowing how Dr. Abbey Powell would answer these questions.

Is there anything else you’d like to tell people?

The theme in my lab is all about research design, and it sounds really boring, but if you think thoroughly about your work before you do it, your work will always be good (rigorous), publishable, and above all, useful.

~

This interview is by Rhett Barker.

It has been lightly edited by Rhett Barker and Claire Williams for clarity.

Thanks to Dr. Katie Sieving for sitting down with us.

The concept for this interview is based on an interview series by the University of Washington called How UW Works, which is in turn based on a series called How I Workby LifeHacker magazine.