A few additional reasons explain Ketterson’s love for juncos. “I like that they feel warm in my hand,” she says. And though, on the runway, a junco couldn’t compete with a flashy chickadee, “I think the gray of their plumage is particularly appealing,” Ketterson adds. Perhaps above all, she explains, “I admire them because they’re tough little animals.”

I’m interested in animal behavior, evolution, and ecology and those three areas are bound up in the junco.

Another word for “tough” is “resilient” and that fits, because Ketterson is also the director of the multidisciplinary Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI). The ERI was established to meet one of the Grand Challenges—Prepared for Environmental Change—that Indiana University committed to tackling as part of a five-year, $300 million research initiative to address the big issues facing Indiana.

The ERI studies and predicts the impact of climate change so it can help communities, governments, businesses, and farmers across the Midwest devise ways to adapt. Faculty and students from both IUB and IUPUI have signed on. They come from many fields (biology, geography, and law, for example) and several schools (including the O'Neill School of Public and Environmental Affairs and The Media School).

Among the subjects ERI researchers study are invasive species, river and landscape modeling, and green philanthropy. The ERI is also producing webinars for local governments on topics like flooding and wind energy. And it has designed a free interactive online toolkit to help localities face environmental change.

Speaking of the ERI, Ketterson says, “If we have a mantra, it’s that our objective is to generate accurate predictions, feasible solutions, and effective communication.” She emphasizes that interdisciplinary collaboration is essential to solving complex environmental problems. As an example, Ketterson says that biologists can tag birds to learn what time of day and year they are most at risk of getting swept up into wind turbines. “With that kind of biologically generated information,” she explains, “it will be possible for social scientists to go to wind farms and negotiate with owners about when to temporarily suspend operations to save birds’ lives.”

Ketterson, who was part of a team that came up with the institute’s name, hopes that “the lovely word ‘resiliency,’” won’t wear out from overuse. “I like ‘resiliency’ because it calls on strength, on adaptability, and on hope. It doesn’t make false promises. If we’re prepared, then we can be resilient to the change that is coming,” she says.

Her faith in adaptability and resiliency means she’s undaunted by gloomy predictions like those contained in last fall’s National Climate Assessment, which predicted more rain, hotter summers, and shorter growing seasons for the Midwest. “For me, personally, I thought, ‘well, then, we’ve got to keep fighting.’ There’s stimulation and motivation in knowing that incrementally greater changes in average temperature are going to have huge consequences. I don’t think we should be frozen by consequences that are so terrifying we can’t act.”

Ketterson herself has always been in action. She earned her undergraduate and master’s degrees at Indiana University Bloomington in botany. After reading the pioneering ethologist Konrad Lorenz, Ketterson says, “I thought, ‘I need to go back to school.” Her Ph.D. adviser was the legendary Val Nolan Jr., who became a professor of biology while he was a professor at the Maurer School of Law. She and Nolan went on to collaborate academically and matrimonially until his death in 2008. She often refers to the scientific work they did together.

In the course of her career, Ketterson has received many honors, including election as a fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science and the American Academy of Arts and Sciences. Last year she received the Distinguished Animal Behaviorist Award from the Animal Behavior Society.

Although juncos have been extensively studied since the 1920s, “I’ve never thought of switching,” says Ketterson. “There’s still a lot to learn. And what we’ve learned is utterly amazing.” Among the many studies she and her lab have conducted, Ketterson has examined the mating and migratory patterns of juncos as well as how testosterone levels affect their behavior, physiology, and fitness. She estimates she’s trained 40 Ph.D. and postdoctoral candidates.

Her years of research have taught her, she says, that “people are a whole lot more like birds than we think.” And she’s learned a corollary lesson: “juncos are more resilient than we would have thought. The more you learn about them as individuals, the more you learn about their capabilities. But you also learn about the limits to their capacity to adapt and our responsibility to step up.”

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