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Islander grad is National Science Foundation grant recipient

Kaeli Swift, UW Ph.D. student. - Contributed Photo
Kaeli Swift, UW Ph.D. student.
— image credit: Contributed Photo

Kaeli Swift knows what she loves.

The 2005 graduate of Mercer Island High School loves crows — who they are and how they behave. Swift now has opportunity to be able to study the highly intelligent birds for the next three years.

She is the recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation graduate research fellowship grant of $90,000 that will pay for the University of Washington. For its ability to have Swift on board, the university will waiver her tuition while she earns a PhD at the University of Washington.

Swift will join the research conducted through the UW School of the Environment and Forest Science. She will work with UW scientist and crow-whisperer, Professor John Marzluff.

“This,” she declared with certainty, “is what I want to do.”

Marzluff said his lab is extremely pleased to have Swift.

“The NSF grant process is extremely competitive,” he explained. “Along with her scientific background and energy, the grant gives her academic credibility.”

Beginning in elementary school, Swift had always been interested in the scientific building blocks of life and behavior. She was a budding entomologist  collecting bugs, then she changed her focus to wolves. She tracked a particular wolf pack through her middle school years. She found that she enjoyed learning about their movements. She  wondered about their instincts and interactions. Later she became fascinated with crows — who have now become her primary focus.

In high school, she took the AP biomed class taught by Mary Margaret Welch who was tough, Swift said. But it gave her the confidence that she could actually take on the field that she wanted.

“It was the first class I was challenged in,” she said over coffee at Stopsky’s last week.

I knew I liked science, but I wondered, if I was really cut out for this,” she continued. In Welch’s class, she found out that she was.

She still has her black bio-med notebook with her notes and work on histology, she said of the class.

She said she began to embrace the idea of being a ‘citizen scientist,’ sharing science with families and friends, explaining and breaking it down, now expanding it further using social media and more.

After earning an undergraduate degree at Willamette College in Salem, Ore., she worked 10 jobs in three years as she put together what she hoped to do next. But she believes her best jobs were those working with youth

Swift credits some of her success in receiving the NSF grant to her experience bringing science to kids. She tutored needy kids, did summer camps and worked in programs to encourage youth to attend college.

Within those programs, she was able to apply her love of science, coming up with her own curriculum for the kids in physiology, ornithology – and all of the ‘ologies.’

Describing those experiences as ‘fantastic,’ she noted that she’d learned  a lot about herself.

“I learned that I did not want to be a biology teacher,” she laughed.

As her resolve became reality, she knew she was drawn to learning about complex social relationships; such as sharing or the ability to learn from past experiences. Her interests fit precisely with the work done at UW.

The NSF grant that she applied for is primarily judged through three essays. In the first, the applicant must demonstrate intellectual merit of the area of study; next, demonstrate the broader impacts of study to a wider audience and finally how a project will expand public knowledge and contribute to society.

UW’s Marzluff has studied the effects of increasing urbanization on crows and their evolution. He has authored two books, and was the subject of a documentary shown on the PBS television show, “Nature,”  in 2010. The film,  “A Murder of Crows” was filmed in Seattle and focused on facial recognition by crows and their ability to pass on such information.

Swift hopes to expand on that work and pass it on.


 

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