Leanne as a teenager

Tell us about yourself

I completed my Bachelor's degree at the University of Winnipeg. I then moved to Hamilton, Ontario, in 2012 to complete my Master's degree in biology at McMaster University. Now I live in London, Ontario where I am working on my PhD at Western University.  I am still in biology!

I play drums and make jewellry. I ride my bike a lot and go camping, hiking, and bird watching. I am a naturalist, which means that I enjoy identifying species of animals and plants. It's kind of like a detective game to use clues and observations to figure out what species I encounter when I am hiking! I also practice martial arts, including kickboxing, jiu jitsu, and kung fu. Being active is really important to me - it  keeps me healthy and emotionally balanced, especially when I have to sit at a computer a lot at work.

I also love reading and listening to podcasts. I volunteer for Let's Talk Science and other Science Education Outreach programs, and for ReForest London, a group that plants native tree species in the city of London.

What is your research about?

My research explores whether or not songbirds use smell to evaluate the immune genes of potential mates. I use genetic tools to assess the immune genes of song sparrow (Melspiza melodia) populations across southern Ontario.

In vertebrate animals, an essential part of immune defense is a set of genes called the major histocompatibility complex (MHC). MHC genes have many alternate forms called alleles.

High MHC allelic diversity can increase disease resistance. This means animals should prefer mates with MHC genes different from their own.

The offspring of MHC-dissimilar mates should have greater MHC diversity and greater disease resistance. Because this is so important, natural selection has likely provided animals with ways to assess the MHC of potential mates.

We know that fish and mammals do this with smell, but we do not know how birds assess MHC.

Most birds secrete preen oil that contains odour-producing chemicals, and these chemicals can reflect MHC. Birds might use preen oil odour to choose MHC-dissimilar mates, which would protect their offspring from disease. Using behavioural trials, I am testing whether song sparrows prefer preen oil from MHC-dissimilar over MHC-similar birds of the opposite sex.

My research may reveal that scent-based communication in birds is more common than we think.

Leanne researching birds outside

What have you enjoyed the most about your research?

I love learning and discovering new things. I get to ask interesting questions and work with wildlife to try and answer those questions. I enjoy observing animal behaviour and then designing and completing experiments inspired by my observations and research.

It is amazing to get to work outside and enjoy the natural world. I am passionate about the research I do, and I am lucky to be able to spend most of my time exploring and thinking about the topics I love.

What have you found most challenging about your research?

I do field work, which means I get to spend part of the year outside, catching birds and collecting samples before releasing them back into the wild. I love this part of my research. But  the majority of my time is spent summarizing, processing, and analyzing data, working in the lab, researching online and writing my results. It can be really hard to spend so many hours on a computer, especially after spending so much time outside!

I often have to solve a lot of problems to get my statistical analyses and lab procedures working properly, and that takes a lot of time and can be frustrating. It is always worth it once I get things working, though, and see my results!

How has your research experience influenced your career path?

This is not what I expected to do with my life! When I was in high school, I didn't think that I was capable of doing anything very unique or special, and I didn't think that I would be successful or go to university. I didn't feel I had a lot of encouragement, but I knew I liked biology so I decided to just go for it!

I finished high school even though I didn't like being there, and that was very difficult, but I was determined to get my degree. I worked full time and saved up money to go to university, and I have been studying and working on my degrees in biology now for 12 years!

I had to work really hard to get good grades and be competitive so that I could get funding (scholarships and bursaries). Otherwise, I would not have been able to stay in school for as long as I have.

I never could have predicted that I would end up where I am today. I'm so glad I never gave up! I plan to continue doing research after my PhD, maybe for a non-academic organization. I also hope that I will continue to find opportunities to share my knowledge and experience with others through teaching, and as a mentor.

How has your research impacted the world?

My work is considered “basic” or “curiosity-driven” research, as opposed to “applied” research. This means that I am not working towards a specific goal like finding a cure for cancer, for example.

Curiosity-driven research means that I am trying to understand the world in a big picture sense. I want to understand how animal communication evolved, how it changes over time, and how it is maintained. How and what drives communication? How does it develop? How complex is it? Why is it complex (or simple)? How does it benefit animals? How similar is communication in one species to that of other animal species and even to humans?

This matters because understanding the world around us can give us greater insight into and empathy for the world we live in and the organisms that we share the planet with. Understanding animal behaviour and communication can also help people develop more effective conservation strategies, or prevent species from becoming at risk of extinction in the first place. Basic research can also lead to discoveries that you might not expect!

Using logic and using the scientific method are skills that help me daily in my life. For example, I use these methods in personal situations like discussions or even arguments. The ability to think carefully about a situation and consider many angles helps me to be more empathetic and look at the bigger picture.

What do you predict will be the next big breakthrough in your field of research?

Until recently, scientists largely assumed that birds couldn’t smell or that smell isn’t very important to them. My research and that of others in my field is providing evidence that this isn’t true! If birds use smell to communicate, and this is important to them, it could change the way scientists look at animal behaviour, especially in birds. Up until now, smell wasn’t really considered in any of the work that has been done on communication, behaviour, and sexual selection research in birds! 

What motivates you to do research?

When I do research, I am trying to find out something that no one has found before, or to confirm that something happens in more than just one species. It is really exciting to think that I can discover something new about even a tiny part of our world.

Reading all the literature I can find about what I study and what I am interested in means that I am always learning. The more I learn, the more I realize that there is so much we don’t know or understand yet. For me, that is really exciting and encouraging.

I also love that I get to work outside and spend time in nature. I see a lot of really neat things that many people don’t get to see, and I get to go to a lot of places that many people don’t get to explore. Being outside keeps me active and healthy, and reminds me that there is more to life than just TV or the internet!

Tell us about your 'Eureka' moment

In my master’s research, I found that a bird called the Smooth-billed Ani uses a specific alarm call to signal the threat of an aerial (air) predator like a hawk, and a different alarm call to signal the threat of a terrestrial (ground) predator, like a mongoose. This is a type of complex communication that scientists thought only mammals, especially primates, could do.

In my PhD, I have found that male and female song sparrows smell significantly different from one another, but only in the early part of the breeding season. This difference goes away after the young are born, which suggests that body odour may be internally controlled, possibly by hormones. I also found that adult and juvenile birds from different populations all smell different from each other, meaning that a bird could possibly tell the age, sex, and population of origin of another bird just by smell.  This is important information that animals can use when they are trying to choose a good mate to breed with. Not many studies have shown this in birds before!

I love doing research that breaks down barriers and challenges assumptions about what animals are capable of!

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