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You Visit Tour. Webb Lion Fountain. June 1 2017. Photo David B. Hollingsworth

Biology Student Erin Heller Gets NSF Graduate Fellowship

Erin Heller, a master's student in biological sciences at Old Dominion University, has received a prestigious National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowship worth approximately $132,000 to support her graduate studies in avian ecology and behavior.

Heller's adviser, Eric Walters, an assistant professor of biological sciences, said he is not aware of any student having received one of these grants while at ODU in at least the last decade. Said Walters, "This achievement by Erin puts ODU on the map. I am so pleased that one of my graduate students has been nationally recognized. This is quite an honor for our lab."

Heller received an honorable mention last year when she applied for the same award.

The proposal that Heller submitted to the NSF focused on her current research on how urbanization affects the relationship among birds, ticks and tick-borne disease pathogens within Hampton Roads.

During the past two years she has been a frequent visitor to the Virginia Zoo and other natural areas in the region, where she uses a series of nets 40 feet long and 10 feet high to catch wild birds. "Then I extract them from the nets, band them with federal bands (from the U.S. Bird Banding Laboratory) and take numerous morphometric measurements. We also check the birds for ticks and remove the ticks if they have any," she explained. "The ticks are later identified in the lab and tested for disease pathogens."

So far, Heller's research has turned up evidence that urban sites have fewer ticks on average year-round than rural sites and that ground-foraging birds, such as the Carolina Wren, have more ticks than birds that do not spend time on the ground, such as most woodpecker species. In all, Heller has found at least seven species of ticks on birds, a finding that astonished both Heller and Walters.

Walters, who recruited Heller to be his graduate student as she was finishing her undergraduate work at Virginia Tech in 2011, said she has also been collaborating with Holly Gaff, an associate professor of biological sciences at ODU who is a tick-borne disease researcher. In addition, Heller has worked at ODU with Wayne Hynes, chair of biological sciences and his graduate student Chelsea Wright to identify ticks molecularly and to test for pathogens.

Heller, who is from Richmond, expects to finish her master's work at ODU next spring. She said she has not decided where she will continue her education in a doctoral program. "This fellowship will open many doors for me, so I have a lot of searching to do. That being said, however, I plan to continue studying avian ecology and behavior."

How did she react when she was informed of the fellowship? "Having something so big and important happen is a feeling that is almost impossible to describe, as my emotions went from ecstatic to shocked to overwhelmed," she said.

Heller made headlines last year when her bird-catching chores produced a Dusky Flycatcher, a petite bird that lives in the western United States in the warmer seasons and typically migrates to Mexico in the winter. It was identified via DNA testing, and logged as the first bird of this species ever to be found in Virginia.