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Ph.D. Student Discovered Her Passion at Wingate
by Chuck Gordon

The eastern phoebe is one of those bird species you’ve seen hundreds of times but have never heard of. Grayish brown with a plump, white chest and beady black eyes, it’s a common flycatcher in the eastern United States. Not too big, not too small. Kind of blends in. Like a guest who lingers too long at a party, it’s the first to raise its voice in the spring and the last to leave the area in the fall.

Lauren Pharr ’19 loves the little guys.

“I just think they’re super-adorable,” Pharr says. “When they’re perched on a tree limb, they do this little tail bob.”

Pharr spots eastern phoebes, American robins, northern cardinals and other birds and wildlife regularly in the parks around Raleigh, where she’s pursuing her degree in fisheries, wildlife and conservation biology (FWCB) at N.C. State University. Either alone or with colleagues, Pharr regularly wanders the woods and pathways of Umstead Park or Dorothea Dix Park, listening for familiar chirping patterns, getting a closer look with her binoculars and taking photos with her Nikon Coolpix 900.

“Birding” helps the avian ecologist and Ph.D. student clear her head after a week of classes and research. The activity is only partially about our feathered friends.

“You just listen to what’s going on,” she says. “Not just the birds, but listen to the wind. It kind of brings you back down to earth. You’re not thinking about anything else, but just the sounds that you’re hearing and being out there.”

Lauren Pharr looking through binoculars in the field

Pharr, like her Ph.D. subject, the red-cockaded woodpecker, is something of an endangered species: There just aren’t many Black birders out there. But she’s trying to change the perception of birding, and wildlife research itself, as an activity only for middle-age white men.

Pharr’s love of birds – or “little dinosaurs,” as she refers to them on her Instagram page – was fostered at Wingate, where she realized she wasn’t cut out for pharmacy but was very much cut out for wildlife research. Studying the Chinese blue-breasted quail with Dr. Ed Mills helped Pharr discover her true passion: birds and their environments.

She loves all birds – the eastern phoebe is her favorite – but lately she’s taken a shine to the RCW. The birds, whose males sport a crimson streak on their head (thus the name), live in groups made up of anywhere from two to six members, with a male-female pairing most often joined by younger birds from previous broods who help provide for the chicks until they’ve fledged. They’re family-oriented and not so keen on other nosy RCW neighbors. “They’re very territorial,” Pharr says. “If you’re not in my group, get off my property.”

As a Black birder, Pharr has seen that same attitude from her fellow humans. “You’ll be out here, full equipment, binoculars, camera, minding your own business, and people will be like, ‘What are you doing?’” she says.

Such attitudes extend past birding moments too. When searching for accommodations near the small town where she was planning to research barn swallows, one of Pharr’s few Black colleagues in the FWCB program experienced such coldness that she wound up driving an hour each way during her field season to conduct her research – valuable time lost in transit.

“People think that Black people and other minorities don’t belong in these spaces,” Pharr says. “It’s sad. It’s really, really sad.”

With her friendly personality and approachability, Pharr is helping to change the equation. Since entering N.C. State with the intent of simply putting her head down and getting on with her research, she has blossomed into an effective and prolific science communicator. Pharr documents her exploits in the field on social media, writes often in nature publications, and is an active participant in Black Birders Week, which began a couple of years ago after a white woman called the police on a longtime birdwatcher, a Black man, in New York’s Central Park. She also serves on a diversity, equity and inclusion (DEI) committee at N.C. State, as well as mentoring undergraduate students.

As programs like State’s look to attract a more-diverse group of students, Pharr’s visibility is significant.

“I think that representation of people of color in wildlife and ornithology is super-important, just for changing stereotypes,” says Dr. Caren Cooper, Pharr’s Ph.D. advisor, “and for her peers to all see each other and feel supported and to realize they’re not alone.”

The more that people of color are accepted into such spaces, the better the research into species such as the RCW will be.

Falling for birds

Up until the early 1900s, the red-cockaded woodpecker lived a charmed life. Mature longleaf pines, its preferred nesting place, were plentiful across the southeastern United States, and naturally occurring fires kept the forests’ understories clear of many other tree species, giving the RCW free rein. Prior to European colonization in the 1600s, there were up to 1.5 million groups of RCWs in the U.S., which equates to several million birds.

There might be 15,000 individuals alive today, and that’s with a concerted effort to protect them.

The culprit? Timber harvesting. “Harvesters came in and chopped down all the old longleaf pines,” Pharr says. They left the young ones, but RCWs prefer mature pines. “They’re the only species of woodpecker to make their nests in a living tree,” Pharr says.

Lauren Pharr with woodpecker chicks

RCWs take years to carve out a cavity in a tree, pecking and pecking to hollow out a nesting space and to produce sap, which forms a natural barrier between their nest and potential predators.

Pharr explains much of this in her frequent, lively social-media posts, such as one on Instagram showing a picture Pharr took of a black rat snake peeking its head out of a manmade cavity in a pine tree. “Black Rat Snakes are the RCW’s number 1 predator,” she wrote. “They will literally eat anything found in a cavity by slithering their way up a tree trunk. But a sappy tree is an RCW’s defense mechanism.”

Other posts show Pharr 40 feet in the air on a ladder, removing chicks from a nest for banding, or in spliced-together clips accompanied by upbeat music, hunting for RCWs in the pine forests.

Getting to the fieldwork phase of her education was a long road. Pharr admits that she was not a great student her first couple of years at Wingate, when she was straining to find her place in the science world. Like a lot of animal-loving kids, she’d originally wanted to be a veterinarian. By college, that goal had morphed into a pharmacy career. But Pharr, an A/B student at Cuthbertson High School in Waxhaw, struggled. She didn’t understand where she fit in the science world.

“My first two years were horrible, to say the least,” she says. “I was taking courses that I just couldn’t grasp. I knew in the back of my head that pharmacy school wasn’t it, but I had nothing else to run with at the time. I was taking microbiology, anatomy, all of this stuff. All wonderful classes, but I was just sitting up here like, ‘This is not registering for me, for whatever reason.’”

Pharr’s advisor, Dr. Alison Brown, took her to Idaho to conduct research on sheep and suggested that she make the rounds of the Biology Department to see if any other professors’ specialities struck her fancy. Pharr found herself drawn to the siren song of the Chinese blue-breasted quail. After taking Wildlife Management at Wingate, she asked Mills, who taught the class, if she could do research with him. She took to it like a duck to water.

“Lauren was really good with details and worked really hard,” Mills says. “She worked very well without direction. I wouldn’t have to stand over her. She just kind of blossomed, I would say.”

Mills studies quail communications – what quails are saying with their songs, how external sounds affect their ability to communicate, that sort of thing. Mills’ research has shown that, in order to communicate with potential mates, Chinese blue-breasted quails can change the pitch of their chirping in response to outside noise, something that hadn’t been thought possible.

The topic hooked Pharr immediately. Pharr wound up taking all of Mills’ classes and became his lab assistant. She was nearly indispensable to him.

“She’s always been a very curious girl, and she works hard and does well,” Mills says. “You have to put all those qualities together to have a good career in science, and she really does. She has a lot of energy too.

“I didn’t want to see her graduate,” he adds, laughing. “I told her I was going to flunk her in a course, to make sure she stayed around another year.”

He didn’t, of course, but he did leave her with a passion for birds. Then again, they’re easy to fall for. “I mean, an animal that sings, that makes music and flies?” Cooper says. “How can you not love that?”

Cooper gushes over her “late bloomer” advisee.

“What I look for in grad students are those who show a lot of perseverance and have a growth mindset,” Cooper says. “I don’t care if they come in knowing stuff. I just want students who want to know stuff and are really open to learning and growing. And that is totally Lauren. She just always wants to do better and more. She does great, but she wants to do even better.”

Unafraid to fail

Pharr needed all the perseverance she could get when she started her postsecondary studies. As it did for many people, the pandemic threw her a huge curveball. For her master’s degree, Pharr had arranged a citizen-science project, using data collected in people’s backyards, only to see the rug pulled out from under her by Covid-19.

“She set it up in her first semester,” Cooper says. “She got it ready to go by winter. I mean, nobody does that. She had recruited participants. She had all her protocols set, all of her permits established, all of her training ready. She was just getting started when the pandemic hit. And then she was not allowed, because it was in backyards. Her research was shut down.”

Reluctantly, Pharr decided to use existing data – the last thing a grad student wants to do. She looked at 20 years of data on the effects of light and noise pollution on adult birds, and eventually worked closely with the Smithsonian to craft “Complex Patterns of Adult Avian Survival in Relation to Noise and Light Pollution,” which is in the revision stage for publication.

"This is what I had in my mind when coming to State. I’m thankful that my professors at Wingate pushed me in this direction."

To Cooper, it was classic Lauren Pharr: She just got on with it. She works hard, she works fast, and she doesn’t much care what people think. Hurdles and roadblocks are merely a nuisance.

“I have never had a student with the time-management skills that Lauren has,” Cooper says. “She just turns stuff around so fast – and is willing to iterate on it. A lot of students I have, they will keep stuff so long trying to get it to be perfect. But perfect is the enemy of done, or whatever that saying is. Lauren, because she’s not afraid of the critique, is willing to send first drafts quickly, get feedback, and quickly improve them. She’s so productive and gets so much done, because she has such a growth mindset.”

It’s all about learning, all about the science.

Well, it used to be, anyway. Entering N.C. State in the fall of 2019, Pharr was dead set on simply being a researcher. Everything else was a distraction. “I think she had a picture (in her head) of a really traditional scientist: doing their work, head down, full steam ahead,” Cooper says.

But Cooper likes her students to communicate their science obsessions with the world, and eventually Pharr realized the value in that. She is now a proficient and enthusiastic blogger, writer and social-media poster.

Pharr enjoys the communication aspect of the science life, and she’s good at it. She has written several articles for North Carolina Sea Grant’s Coastwatch publication, blogs for The Nature Conservancy’s Cool Green Science, and has given more than 30 talks and presentations. She has even been featured in publications such as National Geographic and Wired. Earlier this year, she won third place in the journalism division of the Science Communicators of North Carolina’s SciComm contest for a piece on the impact of climate change on North Carolina birds.

Pharr started out at North Carolina Sea Grant a couple of years ago as an intern, and she’s continued there even after the internship ended, helping them communicate science to the general public. For Coastwatch, she’s written about the effects of climate change on the Gullah/Geechee nation and about minority students in the marine science field.

Her visibility is important in many ways, not least because it could encourage other people of color to join her in the scientific world.

“If a minority were to come here in this department, they would be sitting here like, ‘OK. Where do I fit in?’” Pharr says. “I’ve sort of found myself being a person they can look at and say, ‘If she can do it, I can do it.’”

Brutal work

Having had to go in a completely different direction with her master’s thesis because of Covid, Pharr didn’t want to mess with anyone else’s data when it came to doing her Ph.D. She wanted to collect her own. She’s settled for something of a hybrid situation, working with Cooper’s graduate-school advisor, Dr. Jeffrey Walters, who has been studying the RCW for 40 years. Pharr is doing her own data collection but also relying on data Walters and others have gathered over the preceding decades.

If you want to understand climate change, it helps to study its effects on different species. The RCW provides a good case study. After its numbers fell off a cliff in the early 20th century, a concerted effort was made to save the species. The RCW was placed on the endangered-species list, and several measures have been taken over the past couple of decades to help the birds flourish. Prescribed burning has controlled the forest conditions, and the installation of manmade cavities in trees have made it easier for the birds to nest. Researchers such as Walters – and now Pharr – have monitored the situation to keep an eye on the numbers.

Lauren Pharr smiling

It turns out that all the work over the past few decades to restore the RCW’s habitat, and thus their population numbers, might be for nought. The RCW’s population has rebounded enough that there has been discussion of downlisting the species to simply “threatened,” or even delisting it altogether, but although brood numbers – or the number of chicks being born – are up, in some places the number of fledglings is down. The trend is toward fewer birds surviving.

“I’m looking at brood reduction,” Pharr says. “Walters and other leading experts in the species have noticed that, once the nestlings hatch, the trends in survival have been going down a little bit, and they have no idea why. It may be related to climate change.”

Pharr’s work is important to understanding this phenomenon. Over the late spring and early summer, Pharr spent her days tracking RCWs, climbing trees, banding chicks, checking nests and counting fledglings. In long sleeves, in the searing heat of the Sandhills area of North Carolina.

She enjoys the work, which Cooper warned her would be “brutal.”

“I told Lauren, ‘You know, if you choose this species, you cannot be afraid of heights, and you cannot be afraid of ticks, or heat,’” she says. “It is physically very demanding fieldwork. She absolutely loves it.”

Early this summer, Pharr got word that the Department of Defense was going to fund her research going forward, as part of a grant funding work by several groups, including N.C. State and the Nature Conservancy. (Much of the RCW’s natural habitat is on land owned by the DoD, including Fort Bragg and Camp Lejeune.)

Walters, whom Cooper calls Pharr’s “academic grandfather,” has been a valuable resource. “He knows these birds like the back of his hand,” Pharr says. (As a side note, Walters was a grad student under Stuart Altmann, who was the famous biologist E.O. Wilson’s first Ph.D. student, so Pharr’s academic lineage is strong.) 

She’s still got a couple of years to go before she defends her dissertation and officially claims the mantle “doctor.” But there’s little reason to think she won’t accomplish her goals. At that point, she’ll decide whether to go into academia, consulting, government work or some combination of the three.

Wherever Pharr lands, she’ll be happy. She’s found her occupational home. “I absolutely love it,” she says. “This is what I had in my mind when coming to State. I’m thankful that my professors at Wingate pushed me in this direction. The whole biology department, they were my rocks.”