Laura Palmer working with eastern bluebirds

Finding a niche in nature

Laura Palmer, associate professor of biology, finds peace by mixing work and hobbies.

By: Marissa Carney
Palmer assists a student during a lab exercise in her Biology 110 course.

Palmer assists student Luther Coe during a lab exercise in her Biology 110 course.

Image: Penn State

When she’s not skulking through nature, Palmer, associate professor of biology, can be found at Penn State Altoona teaching biology courses and labs to undergraduates.

Trained in molecular genetics, research has been a part of Palmer’s life for the better part of 23 years. She looks at things inside of single cells, trying to understand their inner workings. While earning tenure at the college, Palmer conducted research using a simple cellular model to investigate the cellular physiology and genetics behind how volatile anesthetics exert their effects.

After earning tenure, Palmer pursued the same line of research for a few years but began to feel troubled with what she could accomplish, as molecular biology research presents quite a few challenges at a small campus. Not only is it very technical, but it’s also expensive and time-consuming. “I'm really the only one with this particular skill set and background on our campus. It's hard to compete with the big research labs for grant money and other things. The technology, instrumentation, and staff I needed to move further were just out of my reach here. I felt like I was at a crossroads.”

Around the same time, Palmer suffered a serious back injury, and the only form of physical activity she was permitted to do was walk. She quickly tired of doing laps around her neighborhood and soon ventured to Canoe Creek State Park, not too far from her home. “Walking throughout the park, I became much more observant of the natural world around me. That sparked an interest in nature and conservation.”

Palmer developed a working relationship with Heidi Mullendore, the environmental education specialist at Canoe Creek, and was invited to conduct nature photography workshops for the park. She also began volunteering as a trail monitor for the park’s bluebird nest boxes, which, along with her love of photography, led to an interest in birds and fieldwork. Although she doesn’t have the formal training and skill set of a field biologist, Palmer knew she could go to the many ecology and field biology faculty at Penn State Altoona for mentoring and with questions. “I started small and began to find some meaning again in those scholarly and research capacities that I felt I had lost.”

Laura Palmer working with eastern bluebirds

Palmer monitoring Eastern Bluebird nest boxes at Canoe Creek State Park.  She collected data for the PA Bureau of State Park's Cavity Nesting Trails Program and for her grant project funded by the North American Bluebird Society.

Image: Penn State

Palmer found that she enjoyed monitoring the bluebird nest boxes. There are about 100 such boxes throughout the park, which eight to 10 volunteers check weekly from April through the end of August. The monitoring is part of a national initiative to help stabilize the bluebird population. Volunteers check the boxes for any problems and count eggs, hatchlings, and the number of birds that make it to fledgling age. Combining data from states across the country provides the North American Bluebird Society with information on how the bluebird population is doing.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Palmer couldn’t help but want more. “As I was monitoring, I was actually collecting more data than anyone was asking for, because I don't know how not to, and I begin asking questions and wondering about things.”

So when Palmer saw a Facebook post from the North American Bluebird Society, she knew it was a chance to put her skills and the work she’d been doing to further use. The Society was awarding a grant to produce a growth atlas for eastern bluebirds. By then, Palmer had been a monitor for Canoe Creek for about five years and been pursuing nature photography for about eight. “The project married those two interests of mine. To find something that I could turn into a scholarly, professional project was exciting.”

Palmer wrote and received the grant to move forward on the atlas. She took daily pictures of the baby bluebirds from when they hatched until they fledged, roughly 17 days, to show their development. The atlas will be used in several educational capacities; wildlife rehabbers, bird banders, and nest box monitors can use the chart to age chicks appropriately for banding and care. The atlas will be available in different formats this fall or winter on the North American Bluebird Society website. “The project validated where I'm at right now, and that maybe I can slowly transition into some small types of field projects, even though it's outside of what I consider my wheelhouse. The Society was very happy with what I produced this summer, and that made me feel really good.”

Always looking for ways to mix hobbies, teaching, and research, Palmer is working to establish a bluebird nest box camera on the Penn State Altoona campus. The camera would allow the campus community and beyond to see what goes on inside of a nest; babies hatching, interacting with each other and their parents, and even the moment they leave the nest. “I think unless you're in the environmental studies program or interested in nature, you may not even realize we have bluebirds on our campus. Having a camera where all of this can be captured would allow us to see some of these really cool natural processes at work.”

Palmer holds a 17-day old Eastern Bluebird nestling that fledged the nest the next day.

Palmer holds a 17-day old Eastern Bluebird nestling that fledged the nest the next day.  She was monitoring it as part of a grant project this past summer.

Image: Penn State

Palmer plans to write a grant for funding to purchase and install a camera that offers real-time video and the ability to record 30-second clips, which can be incorporated into classes such as animal behavior, environmental studies, and field biology. She envisions students writing a blog about the activity seen through the nest cam and doing educational programs with local elementary schools about the importance of conservation and protecting wildlife and wildlife habitat. She also foresees outreach programs for senior citizens who are unable to get outside to enjoy and experience nature, and she would share campus data with the North American Bluebird Society to contribute to the success of the species across the state and nation.

As a result of her volunteer work and her interest in birds and conservation, Palmer was approached to teach an environmental studies senior seminar course in spring 2020. “I’m not an official part of the environmental studies program, so it makes me feel good that faculty I respect in the program asked me to do this and that they trust me with their capstone course. I'm very excited and want to do a good job.”

Using her unique skill set as a biologist, Palmer plans for the course to explore the origins and implications of biophilia, the innate human desire to connect with nature. The course will also examine the impact of nature contact on human health.

Reflecting on the path that led her where she is today, Palmer says she could have thrown in the towel when she hit a wall with research. Instead, she chose to evolve and explore other possibilities. She says it can be scary to move outside of your comfort zone, but it’s always possible to turn onto new avenues and make positive contributions. “I'm adapting and figuring out how to find a new niche for myself. Right now, it feels authentic to be outside doing what I’m doing and exploring my own connection with nature. This gives me a way to feel part of a team. I don't feel as isolated anymore.”

Whether she ends up back in the lab or even moves on to something new, Palmer hopes her students see that a career path doesn’t always have to be linear and changing goals doesn’t equal failure. “It bothers me when they think they've wasted their time or money if they have to shift course for whatever reason. I feel like I'm modeling an important life lesson for them. This is not where I ever saw myself being, but it’s okay. You don't always have to have it all figured out. It's okay to meander a little bit.”

Although Palmer isn’t sure where her own meanderings will take her further in the future, she has some ideas of what she would like to accomplish more immediately. She wants to keep teaching her biology courses but become more involved in the Environmental Studies program. She wants to continue her photography and hold a gallery showing of her works one day. She wants to pursue other ways to combine her photography with academics; one of her ideas is to use images she’s taken here in central Pennsylvania that visually explain complicated biological terms. She also wants to continue cultivating her relationship with Canoe Creek State Park and work in more student involvement through internships and projects.

Rejuvenated by the possibilities, Palmer feels content and open to whatever comes her way. “I still don't know what I want to be when I grow up, I really don’t. But I don’t worry about that. It’s okay. It's not a failure. I'm just being authentic to who I feel I am at this moment.”