At her home in Virginia, Mary Caswell (“Cassie”) Stoddard ’08 enjoyed watching birds, a backyard interest that has soared since coming to Yale. Stoddard has studied ornithology for four years, her accomplishments ranging from creating computer models of bird vision to founding an organization to increase undergraduate interest in the Peabody Museum.
As a freshman, Stoddard took the freshman seminar “The Natural History Collections of the Peabody Museum” with Leo Buss, Director of Undergraduate Studies in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, doing her independent research project for the class on avian color. Captivated by this field from the start, she “knew a good thing when [she] saw it.”
Ever since, she has continued working in the same lab, which is now headed by Richard Prum, the William Robertson Coe Professor of Ornithology, Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, and Curator of Ornithology in the Yale Peabody Museum of Natural History.
After her freshman year, Stoddard won a summer fellowship from the Peabody Museum, where she worked in the ornithology collections to develop a computer model of bird color space. Humans possess three color cones, resulting in a triangle of color space, but birds have four cones, making a tetrahedral color space. Thus, birds experience an added dimension of color perception. “For hundreds of years, bird science has been based on human vision,” Stoddard explained, “but birds see very differently than humans.”
Stoddard spent 20 hours per week in the Prum lab on her senior project: “Prospecting the bird color space.” She selected over 100 specimens from the Peabody’s diverse collection, measuring their feather colors (some of which reflect UV light) using a spectrophotometer, and mapping the colors in “virtual bird color space.”
The next step is determining the mechanisms producing these colors. Some bird colors are created by pigments; others result from the interaction of biological nanostructures and light; and still others are combinations of pigment and structure.
Over the past two summers, Stoddard has also engaged in observational ecology. The summer after her sophomore year, she took a tropical biology course in Costa Rica and “saw some awesome birds.” The next summer she received a grant from the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program to spend ten weeks at Shoals Marine Lab off the coast of Maine. The first day she was there, two different gull species were discovered sharing a nest, an interbreeding event that had never been documented in eastern North America.
While at Shoals, Cassie learned how to snorkel and drive a boat, but the work was not all glamorous.
While braving the gull colony, the birds “loved to dive-bomb me,” she said. She wore a plastic hard hat with pipes sticking out of it and wielded a big stick to keep the birds away. Even with these defenses, she still was still bitten twice by feisty gulls.
Last year, Stoddard traveled to Mexico to present her work at the North American Ornithological Conference. She is the first author on a paper about the evolution of bird color in New World buntings, published in the journal American Naturalist. Stoddard also received the prestigious Barry M. Goldwater Scholarship for the 2007-2008 academic year.
When asked about her Yale experience, Stoddard cited research as one of her most important experiences. “It has been very exciting to start down a path I knew little about and now to be able to ask and answer questions of my own,” she said. Her work in ornithology is particularly exciting “because it combines many different aspects of the science spectrum – biology, computer science, physics, psychology. There is never a dull moment.”
Stoddard has also worked to increase undergraduate interest in E&EB and the Peabody Museum. For example, she founded YEEBUG, the Yale E&EB undergraduate group, which organizes dinners with E&EB professors, panels with graduate students, tours of labs and collections, and public outreach programs at the Peabody.
This year, Stoddard is using her Marshall Scholarship to pursue graduate studies in ornithology at Cambridge University. She will be moving away from feathers and studying the evolution of egg color, possibly exploring looking how egg color may affect a parent’s behavior. Ten years from now, Stoddard thinks she would love to be in academia, researching and working with undergraduates. Judging by her work here at Yale, there is no limit to how high she can soar.