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“The squirrels are all over campus and Ann Arbor,” says field biologist and LSA alum Charlotte Devitz (M.S. ’20). “They’re very charismatic. And they’re everywhere.”

In the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), Devitz studied animal behavior and personality as part of the Frontiers Master’s Program, a two-year program designed to support students who are underrepresented in the field of biology. She focused on fox squirrels to learn about unique behavioral traits in individual animals that lead to selective advantages in different environments. “I wanted to understand how some species are able to be successful in more urban areas while others are not,” explains Devitz. “We anthropomorphize animals so much, even just with our pets, but when you look at it from an actual scientific standpoint you realize that animal personality is a real thing. We see actual personalities, actual consistent differences between individuals. I just found it fascinating.”

The essence of Devitz’s research asked: Do the squirrels in urban environments possess personality traits that differ from those at more remote field sites? “The squirrels made a really nice model because they're found right in the middle of cities and also in really rural areas, so we had this urbanization gradient on which we could study them,” she says. “And they were also a lot of fun to work with.

“My family will never let me live down the fact that I did my thesis on squirrels.”

During the summer in the middle of her two-year graduate program, Devitz and the undergraduate field techs working with her set live traps at sites like the Diag, local parks, and Nichols Arboretum to bait squirrels with peanut butter. “They go crazy for peanut butter,” she says. After catching a squirrel, they’d use a big box arena where they’d run a series of behavioral tests that helped them look for things like aggression, activity level, exploratory behavior, boldness, and docility.

“Once we’d finished the trials, we released the squirrels immediately,” says Devitz. “Everything happened in the field. From the time the animal was captured to the release was generally less than 30 minutes. We kept it as quick and simple as possible to minimize stress.” Because the experiments took place in public areas, Devitz spent a lot of time sharing her research with passersby, something she found exciting. “We’d have an audience almost the whole day. People would do a double-take because they would see us just sitting there holding a squirrel.”

As urbanization and the human population grows, Devitz explains, human-wildlife interactions increase exponentially. “Understanding the behavior of the animals we’re sharing spaces with is key to managing our coexistence, which helps to prevent a situation that could end up poorly for either party,” she says. “Some species do amazingly well in urban spaces. They thrive. But others, as soon as cities start encroaching on their territories, start dying off. Mediating and understanding those dynamics becomes really crucial in conservation and urban planning.”

 

“The squirrels are all over campus and Ann Arbor,” says field biologist and LSA alum Charlotte Devitz (M.S. ’20). “They’re very charismatic. And they’re everywhere.” 

In the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB), Devitz studied animal behavior and personality as part of the Frontiers Master’s Program, a two-year program designed to support students who are underrepresented in the field of biology. She focused on fox squirrels to learn about unique behavioral traits in individual animals that lead to selective advantages in different environments. “I wanted to understand how some species are able to be successful in more urban areas while others are not,” explains Devitz. “We anthropomorphize animals so much, even just with our pets, but when you look at it from an actual scientific standpoint you realize that animal personality is a real thing. We see actual personalities, actual consistent differences between individuals. I just found it fascinating.”

The essence of Devitz’s research asked: Do the squirrels in urban environments possess personality traits that differ from those at more remote field sites? “The squirrels made a really nice model because they're found right in the middle of cities and also in really rural areas, so we had this urbanization gradient on which we could study them,” she says. “And they were also a lot of fun to work with. 

“My family will never let me live down the fact that I did my thesis on squirrels.”

During the summer in the middle of her two-year graduate program, Devitz and the undergraduate field techs working with her set live traps at sites like the Diag, local parks, and Nichols Arboretum to bait squirrels with peanut butter. “They go crazy for peanut butter,” she says. After catching a squirrel, they’d use a big box arena where they’d run a series of behavioral tests that helped them look for things like aggression, activity level, exploratory behavior, boldness, and docility. 

“Once we’d finished the trials, we released the squirrels immediately,” says Devitz. “Everything happened in the field. From the time the animal was captured to the release was generally less than 30 minutes. We kept it as quick and simple as possible to minimize stress.” Because the experiments took place in public areas, Devitz spent a lot of time sharing her research with passersby, something she found exciting. “We’d have an audience almost the whole day. People would do a double-take because they would see us just sitting there holding a squirrel.”

As urbanization and the human population grows, Devitz explains, human-wildlife interactions increase exponentially. “Understanding the behavior of the animals we’re sharing spaces with is key to managing our coexistence, which helps to prevent a situation that could end up poorly for either party,” she says. “Some species do amazingly well in urban spaces. They thrive. But others, as soon as cities start encroaching on their territories, start dying off. Mediating and understanding those dynamics becomes really crucial in conservation and urban planning.”

 

 

Rethinking field sites, innovating, and being open to new ways of defining the field offers a lot for biology and for research in general, including bringing science closer to communities who don’t typically have access to it, identifying ways to combat human-induced changes to ecosystems, and fostering more inclusivity and diversity by connecting researchers from different backgrounds. It also means creating research opportunities that are more accessible than traditional types of field research. For Devitz, this shift is personal. “Since I use a wheelchair, working in parks and even just nature preserves where there’s at least a dirt trail is more accessible for me than trying to get through something that’s completely rugged where there’s no trail at all.”

Through funding facilitated by the Services for Students with Disabilities and the Central Student Government Accessibility Fund , Devitz received equipment that allowed her wheelchair to go ‘off-roading.’ “When I got the equipment, I went into the woods for the first time in six years and I was crying because I was so excited.”

 

Rethinking field sites, innovating, and being open to new ways of defining the field offers a lot for biology and for research in general, including bringing science closer to communities who don’t typically have access to it, identifying ways to combat human-induced changes to ecosystems, and fostering more inclusivity and diversity by connecting researchers from different backgrounds. It also means creating research opportunities that are more accessible than traditional types of field research. For Devitz, this shift is personal. “Since I use a wheelchair, working in parks and even just nature preserves where there’s at least a dirt trail is more accessible for me than trying to get through something that’s completely rugged where there’s no trail at all.”

Through funding facilitated by the Services for Students with Disabilities and the Central Student Government Accessibility Fund , Devitz received equipment that allowed her wheelchair to go ‘off-roading.’ “When I got the equipment, I went into the woods for the first time in six years and I was crying because I was so excited.”

Off the Beaten Path

As a kid, Devitz was a cross-country runner and a competitive horseback rider. “And then about eight years ago, right before I graduated high school, I got sick literally overnight.” After five years, Devitz was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a genetic connective tissue disorder that affects the structure of collagen in the body. “Basically, it’s what holds your body together. This condition had been lying dormant for a long time” Devitz explains. “Looking back there were signs my whole life, but they were so subtle that we hadn’t really thought of them as anything.”

The condition progressed as Devitz finished high school and began college, and it started impacting her mobility more and more. EDS causes Devitz’s joints to dislocate easily and affects her heart and blood vessels. By the time her junior year started, she wasn’t able to cross campus without risk of passing out or dislocating her hip. It was at that point that she started using a wheelchair.

Devitz studied animal behavior as an undergraduate too, and knew she wanted to apply to graduate school and continue research. But as her condition progressed, physicians and some professors told her to consider a new career path.

“Not every person I encountered said those things, but there was an attitude of, ‘You’ve got a disability, and there’s not really a place for you in a science field, especially in field research,’” says Devitz. “I got to a point where I felt guilty even asking professors for accommodations because I felt like I was asking for too much. It was devastating because biology was what I always wanted to do. This condition had already taken so much from me, and I knew I couldn’t let it take this too.”

Off the Beaten Path

As a kid, Devitz was a cross-country runner and a competitive horseback rider. “And then about eight years ago, right before I graduated high school, I got sick literally overnight.” After five years, Devitz was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a genetic connective tissue disorder that affects the structure of collagen in the body. “Basically, it’s what holds your body together. This condition had been lying dormant for a long time,” Devitz explains. “Looking back there were signs my whole life, but they were so subtle that we hadn’t really thought of them as anything.”

The condition progressed as Devitz finished high school and began college, and it started impacting her mobility more and more. EDS causes Devitz’s joints to dislocate easily and affects her heart and blood vessels. By the time her junior year started, she wasn’t able to cross campus without risk of passing out or dislocating her hip. It was at that point that she started using a wheelchair.

Devitz studied animal behavior as an undergraduate too, and knew she wanted to apply to graduate school and continue research. But as her condition progressed, physicians and some professors told her to consider a new career path.

“Not every person I encountered said those things, but there was an attitude of, ‘You’ve got a disability, and there’s not really a place for you in a science field, especially in field research,’” says Devitz. “I got to a point where I felt guilty even asking professors for accommodations because I felt like I was asking for too much. It was devastating because biology was what I always wanted to do. This condition had already taken so much from me, and I knew I couldn’t let it take this too.”

Off the Beaten Path

As a kid, Devitz was a cross-country runner and a competitive horseback rider. “And then about eight years ago, right before I graduated high school, I got sick literally overnight.” After five years, Devitz was diagnosed with Ehlers-Danlos syndrome (EDS), a genetic connective tissue disorder that affects the structure of collagen in the body. “Basically, it’s what holds your body together. This condition had been lying dormant for a long time,” Devitz explains. “Looking back there were signs my whole life, but they were so subtle that we hadn’t really thought of them as anything.”

The condition progressed as Devitz finished high school and began college, and it started impacting her mobility more and more. EDS causes Devitz’s joints to dislocate easily and affects her heart and blood vessels. By the time her junior year started, she wasn’t able to cross campus without risk of passing out or dislocating her hip. It was at that point that she started using a wheelchair.

Devitz studied animal behavior as an undergraduate too, and knew she wanted to apply to graduate school and continue research. But as her condition progressed, physicians and some professors told her to consider a new career path.

As professors were resistant to discussing accommodations so she could participate in field courses, Devitz became determined to find her own path. “I thought, ‘Okay, I know I’m dead set on doing field research, now where can I go? What’s going to be a place where I can do field research that works for me?’ I’m not going to be hiking up any mountains but I can get to some nature preserves.”

Devitz explains that people with disabilities are often kept out of STEM spaces. Although roughly 20-25 percent of people in the United States identify as having some sort of disability or chronic condition, that number drops to roughly 10 percent in scientific disciplines. “In some STEM fields, less than 1 percent of people have a disability,” she says. Not only is this limiting for the individuals who feel excluded in STEM, Devitz says, it’s limiting for the discipline as well. “People with diverse backgrounds and in a diverse team offer more perspective and knowledge than a group that is not as diverse. It’s important for people with disabilities to be included in that conversation.”

Now, Devitz uses her experience to inspire people to rethink who gets to be a scientist. She started “The Bendy Biologist,” a blog where she documents her life as a “not-so-typical” scientist with candor and transparency in the hopes of creating awareness, support, and connection for students and scientists across the country. “I don’t want other young scientists to go through the same things. On top of all of the other stressors of having a disability, you don’t want to have to be fighting those battles too.”

Devitz graduated from the Frontiers Master’s program in 2020, and started a doctorate program at the University of Minnesota this fall. There, she plans to find funding to support undergraduates with disabilities to work as research field techs. For Devitz, the key to cultivating accessibility in STEM lies in open communication between students and professors, and a reliance on qualities that already come naturally to scientists. “Science is all about learning to problem-solve, adapt, and look at things in new ways,” she says. “When you live with any kind of disability, you have to solve problems just to get out the front door in the morning. Those kinds of skills are invaluable in the field of science. All that has to be done is to get rid of the barriers.”

 

 
Images by Becky Sehenuk Waite

“Not every person I encountered said those things, but there was an attitude of, ‘You’ve got a disability, and there’s not really a place for you in a science field, especially in field research,’” says Devitz. “I got to a point where I felt guilty even asking professors for accommodations because I felt like I was asking for too much. It was devastating because biology was what I always wanted to do. This condition had already taken so much from me, and I knew I couldn’t let it take this too.”

As professors were resistant to discussing accommodations so she could participate in field courses, Devitz became determined to find her own path. “I thought, ‘Okay, I know I’m dead set on doing field research, now where can I go? What’s going to be a place where I can do field research that works for me?’ I’m not going to be hiking up any mountains but I can get to some nature preserves.”

Devitz explains that people with disabilities are often kept out of STEM spaces. Although roughly 20-25 percent of people in the United States identify as having some sort of disability or chronic condition, that number drops to roughly 10 percent in scientific disciplines. “In some STEM fields, less than 1 percent of people have a disability,” she says. Not only is this limiting for the individuals who feel excluded in STEM, Devitz says, it’s limiting for the discipline as well. “People with diverse backgrounds and in a diverse team offer more perspective and knowledge than a group that is not as diverse. It’s important for people with disabilities to be included in that conversation.”

Now, Devitz uses her experience to inspire people to rethink who gets to be a scientist. She started “The Bendy Biologist,” a blog where she documents her life as a “not-so-typical” scientist with candor and transparency in the hopes of creating awareness, support, and connection for students and scientists across the country. “I don’t want other young scientists to go through the same things. On top of all of the other stressors of having a disability, you don’t want to have to be fighting those battles too.”

Devitz graduated from the Frontiers Master’s program in 2020, and started a doctorate program at the University of Minnesota this fall. There, she plans to find funding to support undergraduates with disabilities to work as research field techs. For Devitz, the key to cultivating accessibility in STEM lies in open communication between students and professors, and a reliance on qualities that already come naturally to scientists. “Science is all about learning to problem-solve, adapt, and look at things in new ways,” she says. “When you live with any kind of disability, you have to solve problems just to get out the front door in the morning. Those kinds of skills are invaluable in the field of science. All that has to be done is to get rid of the barriers.”

 

 
Image by Becky Sehenuk Waite

 

 


 


 

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Starting college looks a lot different this year for first-year students like J.J., with many courses and activities meeting online. The LSA Annual Fund provides support for tuition, room, and board, as well as the technology and tools necessary to connect to classes and campus. Your support means LSA students won’t miss a beat.


 

 

 

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Release Date: 10/26/2020
Category: Alumni
Tags: LSA; Ecology and Evolutionary Biology; Natural Sciences; LSA Magazine; Anna Megdell; Becky Sehenuk Waite