Amazing Students

Claire Teitelbaum

Claire Teitelbaum
Claire Teitelbaum, a graduate student in ecology, researches the effect of landscape changes on wildlife behavior, like the urban wildlife found at Memorial Park. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

Claire Teitelbaum is finishing up a Ph.D. in ecology. She studies animal movement patterns and how animals respond to human development. This research could later be used to conserve species. She aims to better understand all the ways that nature “works.” “Ecology is an amazing field because everything that we study is so complex and everything interacts with everything else at some level. I am also committed to close collaborations with diverse people, since more diversity lends more views of the same problem,” she said.

Degree objective:
Ph.D. Ecology

Expected graduation:
May 2021

Takoma Park, Maryland

Other degree:
B.A., Biology, Pomona College in Claremont, California

Current employment:
Quantitative Ecologist, USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center

Top university highlights, achievements, awards and scholarships
As a graduate student, most of my activities at UGA have focused around research and been in the Odum School of Ecology. The highlights of my time here have really been the everyday things, like an intellectually challenging meeting with my advisors where we talk about research, a lunch break with my lab mates, or the weekly coffee hour in Odum, where we all stand around and eat pastries and talk about what is going on in our research or lives.

I am in the fifth year of my Ph.D. program and defended my dissertation in March. My defense talk over Zoom was a rewarding end to my Ph.D. program. Even though I would have preferred to give my defense talk in the Odum auditorium, it was wonderful to be able to invite family and friends who live far away, and it felt great to present years of work to a community of colleagues, friends and family. When it comes to research, I’m proud of everything I have accomplished. I have already published four of my five dissertation chapters in peer-reviewed journals, and the fifth is currently in review. As each chapter progressed and built on the previous one, I really did feel like I was moving my field forward, if incrementally in the way that science works.

Throughout my time at UGA, I applied for a number of awards and scholarships and was lucky to be awarded many of them:

  • Three years of my stipend was funded by a National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship
  • Presidential Fellowship through the Graduate School
  • James L. Carmon Scholarship through the Office of Research
  • Best Presentation awards at conferences and symposia, including at the Odum School of Ecology Graduate Student Symposium.
  • NSF Graduate Research Internship Program, where I was able to spend a semester in a lab at the USGS Northeast Climate Adaptation Science Center in Amherst, Massachusetts, where I researched potential responses of moose to climate change. This project was outside my usual discipline and expanded my view of ecological research and potential career avenues in research.
  • Odum Graduate Student Organization, which is the main decision-making body for graduate students. I served as secretary, then webmaster, and this year I am the co-president
  • Chair of the Graduate Student Symposium
  • Served as graduate student representative on a search committee for a new faculty member. I am glad to have been able to give back to a community that has provided so much to me.
Claire Teitelbaum

Claire Teitelbaum will graduate with a Ph.D. in May. Next up, she’ll start a postdoctoral position at the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center in Laurel, Maryland. She will be researching avian influenza in migratory birds. (Photo by Andrew Davis Tucker/UGA)

How did you decide to come to UGA?
I decided to come to UGA after talking with the two faculty members who eventually became my advisors, Richard Hall and Sonia Altizer. Both of them seemed like great people to work with and work in areas of research I was interested in. Before coming to UGA, I was working on ecological research about animal migration patterns, and I was interested in adding another layer to that research, looking at how animal movements affect infectious diseases in wildlife. They both study this movement-infection interaction, so working with them was a great fit. I was also lucky to be awarded the Presidential Fellowship from the Graduate School, which helped me decide to come to UGA because I knew that I would have secure funding during my time here.

How did you choose your major?
I started becoming interested in ecology as a field of study in undergrad, where I was majoring in biology. I really liked the combination of scientific methods, math and studying nature, where I love spending time.

What research have you done while at UGA?
My dissertation research is about how animal movement patterns, like migration, change when humans develop the landscape, and how those changes affect the transmission of infectious diseases in wildlife. This development comes in many forms, but I usually study how humans affect the availability of resources (food, water and shelter) for wildlife. I do a combination of data analysis and mechanistic mathematical modeling. Mechanistic modeling is a fun and powerful way to formalize ideas and hypotheses – for example, one of my research projects asks how animals make decisions about when and where to move. That’s something that is really hard to measure in the field, but using models we can explore the different possibilities and their consequences. I have also analyzed data from a couple of different systems, including American white ibis, a medium-sized waterbird, in urban areas in South Florida. There, I was interested in the role ibis play in connecting different areas on the landscape as they fly between urban parks and wetland areas. Alongside my dissertation research, I have been involved in a number of other collaborative research projects, including about white-nose syndrome in bats; migration of reintroduced whooping cranes in eastern North America; how moose might respond to climate change; and the effects of sampling bias on the results of large-scale ecological studies.

How did you become interested in your research subject?
I have always loved looking at maps, and I enjoy nature and the environment, but I wasn’t sure how to put all of those together until I landed in the field of animal movement ecology. One summer when I was an undergraduate, I ended up working in a lab at the University of Maryland, helping out with various research projects. The one that really stuck was one where I was mapping the migration patterns of mammals around the world. From there, I got to learn a lot more about how different animals move, and I haven’t stopped since.

Why does your research matter?
Broadly, I study how animals respond to human development, and how those responses might change how they spread and transmit infectious diseases. In a world where most – if not all – landscapes are touched by human development in one way or another, it’s important to understand the consequences of that development. Down the line, a lot of this information could be used to conserve species and promote their health; for example, one of my dissertation chapters tries to understand whether white ibis (a bird) move between urban parks and wetland sites. I found that ibis are seen at both site types, but individuals tend to prefer one or the other, meaning that they probably play a pretty small role in spreading contaminants or pathogens from urban to natural areas, or vice versa. Some of my research is theoretical — building models that don’t include any field data — but these models can help us make predictions for what we might observe in nature, and how to go about measuring that. Overall, my research helps us predict how animals will move and behave when landscapes change, and what that means for their health, and ultimately the health of the ecosystems in which they live.

When you started college, is this where you saw yourself?
No! I started college undecided on my major, deciding between biology, French and politics. I pivoted to biology really quickly, but it took me a while to realize that I liked doing research, and what research I like to do. The classic image of an ecologist is of someone wading through a river or climbing a mountain to count animals or plants, and for a long time I thought that’s where I would end up. I certainly didn’t see myself sitting behind a computer analyzing data, but it turns out that’s the kind of research I have enjoyed the most so far.

What is your passion and how are you committed to pursuing it?
I have many passions, but professionally I’m motivated by trying to get a better understanding of all the ways that nature “works.” Ecology is an amazing field because everything that we study is so complex and everything interacts with everything else at some level. Often, looking at the same question from a different viewpoint will give a different answer, not because one is “wrong,” but because there are so many right answers, and each is incomplete. Through my research, I am working on small pieces of this puzzle. I am also committed to close collaborations with diverse people, since more diversity lends more views of the same problem. To that end, I am committed to increasing equity in the sciences. I do so by engaging critically with the work that I do, reading broadly and learning about work being done in adjacent fields, and participating in initiatives in my workplaces.

Claire Teitelbaum presents at the annual Graduate Student Symposium in the Odum School of Ecology. Every year, graduate students organize a two-day symposium to present research. “It’s a wonderful time to really feel the community we have and learn about what so many people have been working on for the last year,” she said. (Photo by Ben Taylor)

My favorite things to do on campus are:
Having lunch in the ecology courtyard with a group of friends, wandering the stacks in the Science Library looking for obscure information, wandering through the Trial Gardens.

When I have free time, I like:
Spending time outside being active (kayaking and walking are my current favorites), baking bread and sweets, reading novels, and talking on the phone with friends and family who don’t live nearby.

If I knew I could not fail, I would:
Spend more time teaching and mentoring. Having another person’s learning in your hands is a huge responsibility, and the optimal way to learn is different for each student. This makes teaching one of the hardest things I can think of, especially for classes with a relatively large number of students. I would love to be able to teach – and learn from – every student in the best way possible, but that’s an extremely difficult task.

If money was not a consideration, I would love to:
Work part time doing what I already do and spend the other half of the time volunteering with a local organization to build community and contribute to the well-being of people around me.

After graduation, I plan to:
Start a postdoctoral position at the USGS Eastern Ecological Science Center in Laurel, Maryland. I will be researching avian influenza in migratory birds and working with other lab members on data analysis for projects about bird conservation in the Chesapeake Bay.

I #CommitTo: Reduce my carbon footprint.