Jessica Yan is a junior majoring in ecology, evolution, and biodiversity (EEB), and sociology. Last year, Yan and another undergraduate student worked in Professor Ben Winger’s lab through the Undergraduate Research Opportunities Program (UROP). They catalogued museum collections of bird specimens and skeletons on loan from the Field Museum of Natural History in Chicago, Ill. and took measurements to see if there have been changes in size over time. This is part of a long-term data collection project.
“Previous research shows that bill size has decreased over time, but Professor Winger was interested in whether the decrease in bill size was due to an overall decrease in body size caused by global warming,” said Yan. The two species they focused on were the White-throated sparrow (Zonotrichia albicollis) and the hermit thrush (Catharus guttatus).
This summer, Yan travels to the other side of the world, namely to Jilin Province, China to gain field ornithology experience working with several graduate students from Beijing Normal University. She will study the movements and behaviors of the Ural owl (Strix uralensis). Primarily, she will learn the basics of assisting in field experiments, including banding and attaching radio transmitters to the birds. “I’m really looking forward to it, especially being in an environment where I can work on my Chinese in addition to building experiential skills.” Yan just received a $1,000 Elliot-Wedgewood International Studies Scholarship from the U-M Program in Biology to help support this field work.
Her current plan, which is, of course, subject to change, is to attend graduate school for further ornithological research. She’s open to a wide variety of alternate possibilities, such as working at a non-profit after graduation or continuing her sociology studies in grad school. “I’ll probably take a gap year to figure out what it is I want to do and how I can use my privilege to contribute positively to society.”
Some of the aspects Yan appreciates as an undergrad at U-M are the many opportunities for joining research projects and the different organizations to explore. “Many professors here are real gems, too,” she said, “really passionate people who genuinely want their students to do well and learn.”
She’s a co-chair for Asian/Pacific Islander American (A/PIA) Heritage Month, which is nationally recognized in May, but is celebrated earlier at U-M in mid-March to mid-April. This year’s theme was, “Envisioning mosaics: our expressions, our (missing) histories.”
“We work to plan events that recognize different A/PIA identities and histories. History is really important because a lot of backgrounds are ignored, but where identities come from and how they came about is essential for understanding the structures put in place that created these identities.”
Yan is also a co-outreach chair for the student organization Call for Humanity that brings groups together to enhance awareness of different social justice issues, such as health or environment.
She is a research assistant for a sociology project titled, “Lesbian and Bisexual Women’s Experiences with Sexual Assault in College.” They are transcribing and coding interviews to find patterns in participants’ answers. “A lot of that content is really heavy and hard to listen to.”
In addition, she is a second-year Global Scholars Program (GSP) student where her role as a special project lead is to assist a conference planning committee for the winter conference, Global Citizenship in Practice.
“Other than the universal, ‘I like hanging out with friends and watching Netflix,’ I don’t have many activities outside of school,” she said. “School-related things consume my life. But in truth, I do like learning and being in this environment, despite how much it stresses me out. Expanding my studies to sociology has given me so much space to learn outside of EEB, and I’ve learned and re-learned a lot of what’s important.”
During her junior year, Yan has developed a better understanding of societal structures and how to use resources available to her at U-M in order to be a good ally. She’s learning how to reframe her way of thinking and moving through the world. “I think it's dangerous to never think critically about our behaviors without understanding how those actions have consequences for others. I'm proud of how much I've learned in this past year, and I know I have a lot more to understand.”