The Birdman of Rockefeller University

One question that people like to ask me is how I decided to study evolution in birds? The fact is that I had always been particularly interested in birds so I have a life-long history of watching and feeding wild birds as well as breeing and training captive birds, so it would seem natural that I would eventually end up studying them, too .. right?

Well, my journey wasn't as straighforward as that since I worried I would never be able to make a living as an ornithologist, so I instead went into microbiology and studied to be a virologist. Daily, my life was focused on sussing out the intricate details of how different viruses replicate and evolve and are transmitted from one host to another, and I soon became fascinated with the evolution of the RNA viruses, especially HIV, FIV (Feline Immunodeficiency Virus) and the influenza virus.

I remember the astonishment that I felt when I first learned about the great influenza pandemic of 1918-1919, which wiped out countless millions of people worldwide, and wondering how I had never known anything about this devastating event. From that moment on, I was fascinated with the influenza virus, particularly its evolutionary changes. The fact that influenza originated in birds added significantly to my interest.

Basically, I was ready to take that next step in my career by going to graduate school to study influenza -- so how did I become an ornithologist and evolutionary biologist with a strong background and intense interest in viruses after such a beginning? The answer is Fernando Nottebohm.

I was working in cancer research when I first read his papers and, because I was a molecular biologist, I immediately realized that his work lacked a strong molecular perspective. It was a short intellectual journey from that realization to the day when I changed my professional focus onto birds, thinking that I could make a living as an evolutionary biologist and ornithologist -- if I relied on molecular techniques to frame my research.

So in a sense, even though I've never met Fernando, I have him to blame for my particular predicament. The fact is that, if I had not studied his work and become enamored with identifying the molecular aspects of birdsong when I did, I would have instead become a virologist.

More about Fernando Nottebohm, the Birdman of Rockefeller University.

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Nottebohm is a genius and there are at least a few of his papers that are truly inspiring. I have not had the luck to meet him. But I've met Peter Marler, another inspiring figure in the bird biology world!