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Cagan Sekercioglu's first summer in graduate school was spent in a lab staring at bird barf.
"It was awful," said the University of Utah biologist (his name is pronounced ch-HAN shay-KER-jew-loo). "You had to look at these vomits through a microscope and figure out what they had eaten from the insect body parts you could see."
Eight hundred vomits yielded valuable data that Sekercioglu and his colleagues at Stanford used to demonstrate that lack of food likely was not causing documented declines in bird populations in Costa Rica's rain forests. A more likely culprit was the Central American nation's legacy of logging.
The experience also bolstered his passion for field work and conservation. In the intervening decade, the Turkish-born scientist has become a leading scholar in conservation biology and started a conservation organization in his native country.
The U.'s biology department hired Sekercioglu last year, luring him away from Stanford where he had worked as a research scientist since earning his doctorate there in 2003 under the tutelage of the renowned population scientist Paul Ehrlich. His global perspective and eye on conservation help round out one of the U.'s largest departments, according to biology chairman Neil Vickers.
"He'll persuade people to look after habitats because if you change them they might not support species. Conservation biology is an outdoor science and very field oriented," Vickers said. "I hooked him up with the ornithological societies. He can tap into that network and use them in banding and counting. It will really connect science with the people out there."
The U. granted Sekercioglu a light teaching load of one course per year and built him a lab in an out-of-the-way corner of the South Biology building.
Sekercioglu's interest in science began during his childhood in Istanbul, when his penchant for bringing home squirmy things spurred his mother to take him to a child psychiatrist, who gave him a clean bill of health. He went on to produce hand-written reports on big topics such as extinction and island zoogeography in high school. His mother's employment with an airline earned him free plane tickets to support his field work in Africa and South America while he was an undergraduate at Harvard.
His central research interest is birds' response to environmental disturbance, particularly from logging and climate change. According to some of his research, the world could lose as many as 30 percent of its 8,400 land bird species by 2100 if global temperatures rise 6.4 degree Centigrade a worst-case scenario.
A key reason would be shifts in vegetation upward in elevation, meaning suitable habitats for specific species will shrink in mountainous areas. The more narrow a bird's elevation range, the more vulnerable the species will be to extinction.
Sekercioglu is drawn to birds because they are approachable, daytime creatures that he calls "sentinels" for broader impacts to the environment. They can be easy to count and capture in mist nests and can be rigged with bands and radio transmitters to monitor their migrations.
"The injury rate [for mist netting] is under .5 percent," he said. "The impact is so minor and the data you gather is so important, not just for science but for applied conservation."
He hopes to establish banding stations at Red Butte Canyon Research Natural Area and the U.'s new Rio Mesa field station near Moab, where students can be employed in research.
At 36, Sekercioglu is already among the most cited scientists in conservation biology. Last year, a consortium of media outlets named him Turkey's scientist of the year, and National Geographic Society named him an "emerging explorer" for his efforts to illuminate the causes and consequences of avian extinction in such far-flung corners of the world as central and eastern Africa, Costa Rica, Alaska, Turkey and, most recently, Papua New Guinea.
He illustrates a breed that speaks out for conservation and involves the public in scientific inquiry.
"It's good science to communicate clearly," he said. "We need a lot more grassroots conservationists who aren't academics, because they need to be out there in the mud with their boots, dealing with local people in communities worldwide."
Other recent U. biology hires also fit this mold. Entomologist Jack Longino and tree-canopy researcher Nalini Nadkarni joined the department this fall after the U. recruited the husband-wife team from Washington's Evergreen State College where they started the International Canopy Network, which promotes forest conservation and research. Nadkarni, who now runs the U.'s new Center for Science and Mathematics Education, is a charismatic communicator noted for engaging nonacademics.
The inherent tension between trying to conserve nature and studying it objectively means conservation biologists must walk a careful line.
"You can be a good scientist and also care about conservation," Nadkarni said. "Their work is to be aware when they have the conservationist hat on and when they have their scientist hat on."
Another pair of U. biologists, Phyllis Coley and Thomas Kursar, maintain a research outpost in Costa Rica, assaying compounds harvested from rain forest plants for therapeutic properties.
"They show people the value of the habitat that they live in, rather than seeing the value only in chopping it all down and selling it or replacing it with some crop," Vickers said. "The tropical forest has inherent economic value. You can make a living out of the forest if you know what's there."
U. paleontologist Scott Sampson, who hosts the PBS children's show "Dinosaur Train," contends university scientists must do a better job sharing their work with the public given the ecological crises the world faces. He has become an advocate for reconnecting children with the outdoors, which could help build their interest in nature and science.
"Fifty years ago we didn't have concerns about sustainability, but now we are at a pivotal moment in our history as a species and for the planet," said Sampson, who moved to California but remains a research curator at the Natural History Museum of Utah. "If the current extinction rate continues we may lose half of all species by the end of the century. This is in the lifetime of children born today."