Imagine spending the summer with a half dozen of your best friends and your favorite biology teacher, making scientific discoveries that will be shared with researchers around the world. That’s what the Mills students on Team Squirrel do each year.
Led by Professor Jenn Smith, the team heads to the hills of Briones Regional Park, 20 miles east of Mills College, to study the social evolution of ground squirrels. It’s a complex topic, requiring examination of diverse aspects of squirrel life. The team observes and records behavior patterns in the field. They trap squirrels to gather samples of hair, droppings, and parasites, then release them back to their home territories. At the end of the day, they bring samples and recordings back to Smith’s lab at Mills for analysis.
Making Scientific Discoveries
Each student takes on a specific part of the project in close collaboration with Smith. Katharine Haughton looked at genetic markers to construct a squirrel family tree. “Dr. Smith is a high-powered researcher in her field, but she was always accessible to us,” she says. “It was exciting to work with her. She encouraged us to answer research questions that no one else had answered.”
“I could talk with Dr. Smith not only about the research I was doing, but also about what I wanted to do with my life,” says Chelsea Carminito, who analyzed field video recordings to understand the development of anti-predator behavior in squirrels. “And what I really want to do is the kind of animal behavior research that Dr. Smith does.”
Kay Singh focused on the impact of parasites on squirrel stress levels and disease transmission. In addition to the mentorship she received from Smith, she values the bonds formed between students on the team. Members typically receive scholarships for their summer research from the College’s Jill Barrett Biology Research Program, which enables them to live on campus during the summer. “In Team Squirrel, we did everything together,” says Singh. “We’d wake up early, go to the field site, come back, and have dinner together. We became best friends, and we still are.”
Dr. Smith is a high-powered researcher in her field, but she was always accessible to us.
She encouraged us to answer research questions that no one else had answered.KATHARINE HAUGHTON, CLASS OF 2015
Mentoring the Next Generation of Women Scientists
Students on Team Squirrel have also collaborated with Smith and each other to write articles about their research for publication in scientific journals. Former team members coauthored a major article on the California ground squirrel in the journal Mammalian Species. And students regularly join Smith to present their findings at scientific conferences.
Haughton says, “Dr. Smith manages to publish a lot of articles—something that can be hard for women in the sciences to achieve. She wants the world to know about research by her undergraduate students. It’s great to have a mentor who inspires women to publish their work and gain academic recognition.”
“Every interaction with Dr. Smith was positive, encouraging, motivating,” adds Singh. “She allowed me to grow in many different aspects of my life.”
Smith says: “All the research we do in Team Squirrel is contingent on collaborating with one another. Our work together is most intensive in the summer, but we have close connections in the lab during the academic year as well. In addition, many of the students on Team Squirrel also take the classes I teach. So I get to know a lot about my students and their strengths.” These multifaceted relationships mean Smith can more effectively help her students reach their professional and personal goals.
Every interaction with Dr. Smith was positive, encouraging, motivating.
She allowed me to grow in many different aspects of my life.KAY SINGH, CLASS OF 2016