The small liberal arts community at Albion College allows for close connections inside and outside the classroom. One of the many Albion advantages is the small student-to-professor ratio that encourages students to build strong relationships with their professors.
This Between Classes article features Kelly Hallinger, an assistant professor of biology at Albion College. Hallinger received a B.S. from The College of William and Mary in 2009 and a Ph.D. from Cornell University in 2017. Her areas of expertise include animal behavior, ornithology and evolutionary ecology.
Currently, Hallinger is teaching Biology 195: Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity, Biology 227: Vertebrate Zoology and Biology 248: Ornithology. She was appointed to her position in 2020.
The Pleiad: What brought you to Albion?
Hallinger: So, I was perusing jobs everywhere. I didn’t have a ton of familiarity with Albion when I came across the job ad for it. The ad said Albion was looking for a vertebrate zoologist. It was looking for someone who was going to be teaching about vertebrates and someone who could specialize in any area of vertebrates. That alone really stood out to me as being right in my wheelhouse. I would be able to teach about all of these really cool animals all of the time. Right before I applied, my husband just happened to get transferred to Western Ohio. That also made the area really attractive. I was sitting there thinking, “Wow this job seems even more perfect.”
I really wanted to be at a place that valued undergraduate teaching. I had an important set of experiences as an undergraduate. I was not at a school as small as Albion, but I still had associations with professors and was able to do a lot of research as an undergraduate. That was what I was looking for professionally as well. I wanted to be able to mentor undergraduates in their developmental phase of higher education. That was another aspect of the job that stood out and appealed to me. When I visited Albion, it just felt like a really good fit.
P: Can you tell me a little bit about your position here at Albion?
H: I am in the biology sequence, so I teach Biology 195. I teach ecology, evolution and biodiversity. I teach labs and lectures in both semesters. At this point, just lecture in one semester. My upper-level classes are vertebrate zoology. I also work with birds, so I teach ornithology as well. Those are both classes that I have taken over from my predecessor, Dale Kennedy. I recently taught in the first-year seminar program, and I am teaching in the honors program for the first time this spring.
P: Do you have any specific research focuses that relate to your interest in birds?
H: Yes. I have moved around a little bit over the course of my education in terms of specific research areas with birds. I have always been interested in individual variation and how individual variation interacts with ecology and evolution. I started working with mercury contamination in birds when I was an undergraduate.
In biology, we spend a lot of time looking at averages and how groups of animals are behaving with respect to other groups. We look to see what happens to the group when you vary something. We spend less time looking at why some animals do this and why other individuals do that. Working in mercury contamination really got me interested in that question. It also got me interested in thinking about how the environment intersects with individual variation.
After studying mercury contamination in birds, I moved to looking into the mating systems of tree swallows, which I’m still hoping to work with here. Tree swallows are a bird in which there are really high rates of extra-pair paternity, meaning that males and females pair up and nest together. They raise their offspring together, but the males are not necessarily raising offspring that have been completely sired by them. It is one of these big puzzles that people have studied for a long time. There is a ton of variation both across and within species. It is not entirely explained. I spent some time working on that and studying how the environment might influence the expression of that behavior.
Now that I am at Albion, I am still interested in environmental dependence of traits and individual variation. Recently, I have undertaken a collaboration with one of my friends from undergraduate. We are working to capture black-capped chickadees that are wintering here. We are taking fecal samples and are hoping to look at the gut bacteria that they have.
This is actually one area where there is probably more research in humans than in animals. From human research, we know that gut bacteria is really important in not just affecting gut health but there is also a really strong two-way feedback with the brain. As a person who has long studied behavior, I am really interested in looking at how the gut bacteria in these wild bird populations may influence individual personality traits, individual likelihood of survival or individual physiology. We are just now starting to get that off the ground this year. I am hoping that it is something we will keep studying in the future.
P: When did you first become interested in gut bacteria as it relates to bird personality and behavior?
H: I knew a little bit about gut bacteria and I knew it could affect physiology, but I hadn’t really thought about it in a behavioral context. I first came across this in an article that was discussing autism treatments and looking at something called fecal transplants with autism.
If you expose children who have autism to gut bacteria from somewhere else, they are not seeing just improvements in digestive systems but also in cognitive symptoms of autism. I thought that prospect was fascinating. It was the first time I came across the term ‘gut-brain axis.’
P: How long will you be working researching gut bacteria in black-capped chickadees?
H: This is a really hard question to answer. At this point, it is going to be until we are done and feel as though we have enough samples to answer our question. This year, the fecal sampling is going really well. I am still figuring out how to do some of the behavioral work that I want to do.
For example, the chickadees all have little plastic color bands on their legs that we put on the first time we catch them. We do this so once we catch them we can look at them with binoculars and tell who they are. We can do that pretty well, but they move in and out of the feeders in the winter really, really quickly, so it can be hard to get a good look at them.
The chickadees forage in groups. Because of this, our research is harder than if we were doing this during the breeding season when you know you are dealing with either the male or the female going into a box or into a nest. This has been a challenge in terms of trying to score behavior and scoring who is coming in and out each time.
I am trying to conduct a lot of these behavioral trials at the feeders in the winter to try to measure different things about their behavior, like how willing they are to take risks. Let’s say you put a mock predator in the area, we want to see who is more willing to approach the feeder and who is more likely to hang back.
That’s something I am still trying to figure out how to do well. I have cameras that I am trying, but they still don’t pick up the bands in the exact way that I need them to. That is something I am still trying to figure out and is something that will probably take me at least the rest of this year to figure out.
Hopefully, we’ll be able to go in next fall and have a little bit better of an idea of how to do that well. It’s a process right now. With field studies, it usually takes at least a couple of years to collect enough samples to be able to say something meaningful about a question that you have.
P: Do you have students working with you on the chickadee research project?
H: I do have a couple of students working with me this year. They have been out catching birds with me. I am hoping to move them to greater independence, where they are able to actually take birds out of nets, take blood samples from them and take measurements from them. Next year, that will increase our ability to collect more samples when it is not just based on my availability. That will be fantastic.
P: What do you like most about Albion?
H: I have been really fortunate in having wonderful students that seem really open-minded and willing to buy in when I want to do something that is a little bit more unconventional. That is something that I really like about being at a liberal arts college. It doesn’t seem odd when I ask everyone to grab colored pencils to draw all kinds of vertebrates in order to get them used to being able to identify vertebrates through photographs or in the future.
Openness to things a little bit outside of the comfort zone has been really wonderful. I came in the middle of the pandemic. My first class was vertebrate zoology. I did not know what to expect. Everyone was just on board and seemed excited to be there and that was a really rewarding and genuine experience. That has been my experience across the board. I appreciate students’ openness to experiences, to growth and to challenges.
P: What is your favorite memory from Albion so far?
H: My favorite memory from in the classroom comes from when I taught ornithology for the first time. It was during the module system, so it was last spring. I decided I wanted to try something that I had always wanted to do but never had a good opportunity. I wanted to try to have a whole class move through a class-wide research project, with the goal of trying to publish it when we got to the end.
I pitched the idea to the ornithology students last spring, and they were on board with it. I didn’t have any field data yet so we used data that my Ph.D. advisor had and allowed us to work with. We went through the whole scientific process of trying to come up with hypotheses and predictions and ways to test them. We were doing data-proofing and statistical analysis. By the end of the semester, we did have a draft of a paper. I have a student who has stayed on to clean it up and get it ready to submit. I was so proud of that group of students for being able to do that.
I would say one of my favorite personal memories is I came to Albion with a six-month-old daughter. She was born literally the day before they started tracking COVID-19 cases in the United States, so she had not really gotten to go a whole lot of places or see many people. Then, we moved to a new town where we didn’t know anybody. I remember a couple of occasions when I remember bringing her over to the campus, especially as she has gotten older and COVID-19 has been weaning a little bit more.
Right before the start of this semester, my peer mentors asked to meet. The only time we were all available was in the evening so I would have to bring my daughter with me. We would meet out in the Quad. It was really sweet because she was so happy to be outside and also with new people. She was running around and interacting with both peer mentors. It was just really cute and really sweet. That is something that just makes me smile when I think about it.