KENNESAW, Ga. | May 19, 2023
Rachel Kaplan’s career journey started in the great indoors. Now you’ll find her studying songbirds in the great outdoors.
Nine years after earning a bachelor’s degree in interior design with a minor in sustainable building design, Kaplan changed career trajectories to follow a burgeoning interest in wildlife science. After having the chance to move around the country working with various wildlife species, she was accepted to Kennesaw State University’s Master of Science in Integrative Biology program, and recently finished her graduate degree—the continuation of a winding journey from her hometown of Media, Pennsylvania, to the forests and fields of suburban Atlanta.
“It is never too late to pursue something you’re passionate about,” she said. “Don't let the naysayers tell you that it's too late or you're too old, or you don't have the proper background. Let the most supportive voices be the loudest in your head.”
Kaplan began her journey at Drexel University in Philadelphia, where in 2014 she earned a bachelor’s in interior design with a minor in sustainable building design. Kaplan planned to enter the field of hospitality design, with a specific interest in designing interiors for energy efficient buildings, but a professor-turned mentor’s encouragement toward the sciences changed that plan. After graduating, Kaplan took introductory science courses at a community college and gained field research experience while considering graduate programs in biology.
She earned a second bachelor’s in fisheries and wildlife science at Oregon State University and then worked as a field technician at bird-banding stations in Nebraska and Rhode Island. Those positions, as well as her work at Tristate Bird Rescue and Research in Delaware made her realize she wanted to study birds exclusively, ultimately leading her to KSU.
“The more I became involved in avian research, the more excited I was to pursue that as a career path,” she said. “Avian survival, behavior and physiology can reflect environmental stressors and offer a lot of clues about how humans can mitigate detrimental effects to native birds in the face of changing environmental conditions. Growing up with little interest in nature, I have been constantly excited to see new species close-up and learn more about what birds can tell us about the effects of anthropogenic changes to wildlife habitats. The constant discovery makes this field continuously exciting.”
In search of a master’s program with a laboratory that focused on ornithology, Kaplan contacted KSU assistant professor of biology Sarah Guindre-Parker in September 2020.
In addition to selling Kaplan on the MSIB program, Guindre-Parker suggested Kaplan apply for the Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) from the National Science Foundation, which would provide funding for her studies.
Kaplan earned the fellowship in February 2021 and was accepted to Kennesaw State in April 2021. With funding from the NSF, she could have gone anywhere to earn her graduate degree, but chose KSU.
“I am so grateful to Sarah for all her assistance,” Kaplan said. “And I couldn’t have imagined a better place to continue my studies than Kennesaw State because I have learned so much here.”
Kaplan said $12,000 of the NSF GRFP award funded research equipment, school fees and travel expenses for a July 2022 conference, where she presented findings on the physiological effects of habitat urbanization on birds nesting in along an urban-to-rural gradient. She also received a stipend for living expenses each year.
Guindre-Parker said Kaplan was both a strong fit for her lab and the kind of scholar the NSF sought for its fellowship.
“I was excited to support Rachel in preparing an NSF Fellowship application because I thought she had a great chance of getting an award,” Guindre-Parker said. “Rachel had a clear research plan, a compelling personal statement for wanting to attend graduate school, and she’s a great communicator—all crucial components in an application.”
Guindre-Parker’s lab studies how animals cope with changing environmental conditions by studying starlings, a highly adaptable and prolific bird that nests locally. The lab studies the birds in urban, rural and peri-urban settings—including nesting boxes at the KSU Field Station. Each graduate student also has a teaching component, which Kaplan said she enjoyed as well.
Guindre-Parker said while Kaplan is a strong mentor and excellent researcher, Kaplan didn’t leave her artistic side completely behind. Kaplan turned her eye to how science was presented, creating engaging research posters and presentations, and coming up with clever solutions to fieldwork challenges.
“She modified a camping tent for a behavioral experiment we conduct on starlings. She was super creative and clever about how to mount a small camera to the tent,” Guindre-Parker said.
Kaplan will have even more chances to communicate her passion for science and conservation in the future, as she begins work toward a Ph.D. in biology this fall at the University of Rhode Island.
“Being accepted to Kennesaw State and being awarded the GRFP provided affirmations that I made the right career choice, despite the added years spent in school,” she said. “I tell anyone I talk to about changing career paths that it’s never too late to pursue what excites you and to not give up, even in the face of an uphill climb.”
– By Dave Shelles
Photos by Matt Yung
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A leader in innovative teaching and learning, Kennesaw State University offers undergraduate, graduate and doctoral degrees to its more than 45,000 students. Kennesaw State is a member of the University System of Georgia with 11 academic colleges. The university’s vibrant campus culture, diverse population, strong global ties and entrepreneurial spirit draw students from throughout the country and the world. Kennesaw State is a Carnegie-designated doctoral research institution (R2), placing it among an elite group of only 7 percent of U.S. colleges and universities with an R1 or R2 status. For more information, visit kennesaw.edu.