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Bird of a Different Feather

McNair Student’s Research Helping to Save Endangered Species

Olivia Smith
Olivia Smith

Editor’s Note: This is an edited version of a feature that ran in the Adrian Daily Telegram in October 2012. Used with permission. Written by John Mulcahy. Photos by Mike Dickie.

A small, green and yellow songbird with a distinct white ring around its eye has become an important part of Siena Heights University student Olivia Smith’s life.

Called the Saipan bridled white-eye, the native of the Mariana Islands in the northern Pacific Ocean is an endangered species thanks to the brown tree snake, introduced to Guam shortly after World War II. The bird no longer exists on Guam and is found only on three other Mariana islands.

Smith, a biology major at SHU, has been studying the bridled white-eye at the Toledo Zoo, where nine of the 24 members of the species in captivity live. The goal is to help the birds successfully reproduce and raise offspring in captivity, a safeguard in case the species goes extinct in the wild.

“What I’m focusing on is the captive (bird) conservation effort,” Smith said.

Smith was invited by Toledo Zoo curator of birds Robert Webster to present her findings at an Association of Zoos and Aquariums Avian Scientific Advisory Group passerine (song bird) workshop Oct. 12-14, 2012, in Denver, an experience Smith called “really great.”

Smith was an intern at the Toledo Zoo in summer 2011, stayed on as a volunteer, then asked if she could do research there. She is focused on what conditions the bridled white-eye needs to successfully produce offspring that make it to adulthood. So far, that has not happened with the birds in captivity.

Read more . . .

Flight of Phoenix

Rising from the Ashes of Personal Tragedy, Phoenix Duncan Soars to New Heights

By Doug Goodnough

She was named after a mythical bird that arises to new life from the ashes of its predecessor.

An orphan at the age of 16 after watching both of her parents die from drug- and alcohol-related liver diseases, Phoenix Duncan had a decision to make. Was she going to follow the same self-destructive lives of her parents, or would she overcome her painful past?

The 19-year-old Siena Heights sophomore has answered that question emphatically. Not only is she a dean’s list student who is headed for a career in nursing, Duncan is also rising above the competition as a high jumper on the women’s track team. In fact, in three NAIA national championship meets, she has finished runner-up all three times and already is one of the unquestioned leaders on campus.

Dealing with Death

Duncan and her older brothers were in foster care when they got the word their father was dying of liver failure due to years of drug and alcohol abuse. She was just 10 years old.

“We just got a call that he had passed away during the night,” said Duncan, who knew her father was dying but was still caught off guard by the news. “Having this mindset of ‘OK, we’ll see him again,’ then all of a sudden (he died), it is just completely changing. That affects you.”

A month later, she and her siblings were back living with her mother, who was dealing with her own addiction issues. Family life was OK for awhile, but when her mother relapsed, Duncan also changed for the worse.

“It’s almost like, ‘OK, if you’re relapsing, then I’m also just going to be a rebel,’” Duncan said of her negative reaction to her mother’s struggles with addiction. “We were both going down the path where I was doing stupid things, she was doing stupid things. We were just neck-and-neck.”

During Christmas break more than three years ago, Duncan’s mother told her she was dying. Four days after Duncan’s 16th birthday, her mother passed away. But she said dealing with her mother’s dying and eventual death was a transformational experience.

“No more bad Phoenix,” she said of the 180-degree turn she made. “I didn’t have bad grades, but I didn’t have grades that were up to my potential. I just didn’t care. I wanted to prove to (my mother) that I was in control.”

Duncan was definitely in control, but moving in a much better direction.

Read more . . .

Licking A Problem

Senior Project Has a Sweet Conclusion for Cory Heid ’13

By Doug Goodnough

Something just didn’t add up for Cory Heid.

Heid, one of a dozen or so math students, faculty and graduates from Siena Heights University who attended the largest math meeting in the world in San Diego, Calif., was originally scheduled to do a poster presentation at the January event.

However, upon arrival at the Joint Mathematics Meetings, Heid learned the expectations had multiplied.

“He can’t find himself in the poster session,” said SHU math professor Andrew-David Bjork, who helped organize the trip. “So (Heid) looks at the page where his name is, and they gave him a talk. So in four days he had to prepare a Powerpoint presentation on his senior project to give a talk to a live audience.”

A live presentation involves much more preparation than a poster presentation. However, Heid, who completed his coursework in December, first had a problem to solve: the research on his senior project was not complete.

“It was done, but it wasn’t 100 percent completely done,” Heid said. “I was doing last minute fine-tuning.”

And the topic of his senior project certainly could be called unique.

“It’s ‘How many licks does it take to get to the Tootsie Roll center of a Tootsie Pop?’” Heid said. “Just like the 70s (television) commercial.” Read more . . .