From visiting the Galapagos Islands to being immersed in the study of evolutionary biology to traveling to work in a lab in Kenya, Kelsie Lopez ‘21, a biological sciences major from Lindenhurst, New York has been busy during her first two years at Cornell.
A McNair Scholar, during her freshman year, Lopez was involved in the Galapagos Undergraduate Curriculum through the Biology Scholars program. The program allows biology majors from underrepresented backgrounds to learn more about evolutionary biology and gives students the chance to visit the Galapagos Islands during the spring break of their freshman year.
“For me, being in the exact same position that the famous Charles Darwin was in during his time in the Galapagos and being able to see Darwin’s finches in person was truly special,” Lopez said. “The experience helped me develop a new passion for biology in areas such as behavioral ecology, evolution and genetics. It was this exciting discovery that made me realize I wanted to pursue a path in research, which greatly contrasted with my previous interests.”
Lopez works in the lab of Eve Donnelly, associate professor of materials science and engineering, where she studies the effects of Type II Diabetes Mellitus on bone quality in post-menopausal women. The focus of the lab is characterization of microstructure and mechanical properties of skeletal tissues to identify the material factors that contribute to the integrity of healthy skeletal tissues and to improve prediction of structural failures and treatments.
Lopez is also involved in a research project at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology with Daniel Hooper, the Edward W. Rose Postdoctoral Fellow, where she is studying a hybrid zone by looking at mitochondrial DNA haplotypes between two subspecies of the Australian Long-Tailed Finch.
During spring break, she will travel to Arizona to work on a research project to take nest and environmental surveys in order to understand how environmental conditions affect the verdin, a bird that withstands harsh desert conditions. Lopez has obtained funding from the various scholars programs she is a part of, including the McNair Scholars program and the Biology Scholars Program.
“The hands-on learning experiences that I can gain through research are incredibly valuable to me because they allow me to make the most of my time at Cornell,” Lopez said. “The Biology Scholars Program, McNair Scholars Program and Pre-Professional programs have supported me particularly by teaching me the proper skill sets needed to excel in research.”
Over winter break, Lopez worked at the MPALA Research Center and Wildlife Foundation in Kenya. The MPALA Research Center is located at Mpala, a region with nearly 7,000 elephants and endangered wildlife. The center hosts hundreds of students and educators conducting research on elephants, parasites and conservation. Lopez was part of a team of students that investigated the nest orientation of social and sparrow weavers as an adaptation to cope with environmental conditions.
“I met incredible researchers from all over the world during this time at MPALA and made close bonds with the members of my team,” Lopez said.
Next summer, Lopez will travel to Australia to work on an NSF-funded project with researchers at the University of Wollonggoing and the Hawkesbury Institute for the Environment, where she will study the cultural evolution of the lyrebird. The lyrebird is significant because it is known to mimic not just other birds but other sounds such as car alarms.
“As a first-generation student at Cornell, exposing myself to these opportunities has not been an easy task, but I have faculty members who care about their students and are willing to support me in my research endeavors.”
After graduation, Lopez intends on pursuing a PhD program and continuing biological research.