First-Year Runner Forges His Own Academic Path

First-Year Runner Forges His Own Academic Path

Kiehl Smith did not take the path of most biology majors at Albion College.

The first-year student from Jonesville, Mich., who runs distance events for the Briton cross country and track & field teams, didn't include biology 195, the department's usual entry-level class, in his fall semester course load.

In fact, Smith said he was more interested in social studies as a major and education as a concentration when he first began to consider Albion and his future plans.

In the liberal arts tradition, however, all it took was a meeting with biology professor Dale Kennedy to rekindle Smith's passion for ornithology, or the study of birds. Now Smith is a student in Kennedy's biology 248 class which includes field experience in the identification and population studies through participation in the Cornell Lab of Ornithology's Great Backyard Bird Count.

"I collected field guides in elementary school, and I never looked at it very much until getting interested in sixth grade when I started making checklists and keeping track of what I saw," Smith said. "It has stuck with me since then.

"I joined a citizen science project called eBird and Dale saw I was putting checklists in the area and she got in contact with me and offered me the opportunity to take the ornithology class," he added. "I realized I want to do something in the field.

"One of the things I like about distance running is it gives me the opportunity to look around," he continued. "It allows me to explore – be out in nature – while running. I would not be outside very much if I didn't run."

While he reports an interest in birding for years, Smith is in a biology class for the first time since his sophomore year of high school, and he says he's fitting in as a typical student learning about the subject. Part of the enjoyment comes from having friends and fellow Briton athletes Andrew Bill (a NCAA Championship qualifier in cross country), Matt Bur (baseball) and Abby Vogelwede (also track & field) in the class.

"As good as the education and political science departments programs are, I'm getting a lot more out of biology – this is something I enjoy a lot more," Smith said. "Like other sciences, (ornithology is) such a deep topic. There are virtually endless species of birds in the world. I can keep exploring and find new things."

The bird count, which ranged from Feb. 17-20, required volunteers to watch for birds for at least 15 minutes, preferably in the morning when birds are most active. This year was the 20th year of the Great Backyard Bird Count, and more than 172,000 checklists were submitted with more than 27 million birds counted around the world.

Smith keeps notes on his phone, tracking both the species and the number of birds he sees.

"Ornithologists and biologists can't be everywhere at once so they get individuals interested in birds to help," Smith said. "I never got into counting until I got on eBird this summer. It opened my eyes to finding new species."

Among the benefits of studying at Albion is variety of travel and research opportunities it offers. Smith traveled to Hawai'i between semesters as part of a first-year experience field trip under the direction of geology professor Carrie Menold and he may participate in research opportunities funded by the college's Foundation for Undergraduate Research, Scholarship and Creative Activity in the future.

"I will have to research to find out what kind of jobs are out there (in ornithology)," Smith said.

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