Ellen Ketterson was conditioned, at an early age, to pay close attention to birds. An ornithologically oriented older brother – 11 years her senior – would praise her when she accurately identified avian species and, she recalls, “withhold treats if I got it wrong.”
It may be a stretch to call Ketterson’s career path Pavlovian, but it’s interesting to note that the 4-year-old who was rewarded for bird watching grew up to conduct some of the most influential bird studies in the field of animal behavior.
Ketterson, a Distinguished Professor of Biology and Gender Studies and the recipient of the 2011 College of Arts and Sciences Distinguished Faculty Award, has been studying a songbird called the dark-eyed junco for more than 25 years. Through her experiments in “phenotypic engineering” – a term she coined – she has made major contributions to evolutionary biology by demonstrating how testosterone affects fitness in male juncos. Her findings have also helped to elucidate the role of hormones in allowing populations to adapt to novel conditions like urbanization and climate change.
“The thing that’s cool about hormones is that they affect more than one thing – they can alter, for example, a bird’s song rate, parental feeding rate, immune function, and response to stressors,” she explains. “You begin to see that in an environment that is variable and unpredictable, it’s good to have a constellation of traits that you can dial up or dial down by altering the levels of hormones. That coordinated capacity to respond to changes in the environment is apparently favored over a piecemeal, erratic means of adjusting the way the animal acts or functions.”
Ketterson’s groundbreaking research has earned her recognition as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the John Simon Guggenheim Memorial Foundation. She has received continuous funding from the National Science Foundation for more than 30 years, including an OPUS (Opportunities for Promoting Understanding through Synthesis) grant that will enable her to turn her body of work into a book. She has published more than 130 papers and served in an editorial capacity for all the major journals in her field. She also co-founded the Center for the Integrative Study of Animal Behavior at IU and received career achievement awards from the Animal Behavior Society and the American Ornithologists’ Union.
The impulse that drives her work, though, has been with her since those childhood days in the backyard with her brother. “I’m just really curious about why animals do what they do,” she says. “These basic questions about animal behavior still interest me a great deal.”