Senior Stalks the Wild Research Opportunity

Thursday, March 27, 2014 - 8:15am
Flynn Vickowski ’14 with one of the lizards used in her research. Photo by Ben Tobin

Flynn Vickowski ’14 didn’t travel far when she left home for college—she’s from nearby Longmeadow—but her time at Mount Holyoke has taken her far and wide. Her lifelong interest in animals led to research involving creatures great and small, from ants in an MHC lab to humpback whales off the coast of Puerto Rico.

Starting in her first semester at MHC, one opportunity led to another and then another. A first-year biology course brought her a mentor in zoologist Denise Pope. An introductory psychology course led to lab work on ant behavior with professor Karen Hollis. And an alumnae connection helped Vickowski land intensive fieldwork with humpback whales of Puerto Rico. Now she works in the lab of biologist Gary Gillis, whose research involves the biomechanics of hopping toads.

And as if that wasn’t enough animal involvement, Vickowski also has been captain of the riding team, does therapeutic riding, has volunteered at a local zoo for years, and spent two weeks in Costa Rica on a volunteer animal rescue and rehabilitation mission.

“I have always liked science and had an interest in animals, but knew I didn’t want to be a vet,” she says. So when a friend described her own major—neuroscience and behavior—as a combination of psychology and biology, Vickowski knew she’d found her academic niche. This spring, Vickowski is completing her senior thesis on the tail’s importance in controlling in-air stability in green anole lizards.

“The College’s connections have led to most of my opportunities,” she says. “I’ve always appreciated how much the professors are devoted to students’ success. They’re very helpful in telling us about internships and in giving us insight into directions our careers might take.”

Vickowski is also helping middle-school girls think about their futures, through a workshop she designed to interest them in science. “There was never any ‘science isn’t for girls’ talk in my life, but when I learned about the shortage of women in STEM fields, I wanted to do something about it,” she says.

Vickowski is a finalist for a Fulbright fellowship that would bring her to Chile to study the ecology and cognition of humpback whales, a project that would mesh nicely with her second major, Spanish.

—By Emily Harrison Weir