Ohio Wesleyan University zoology professor Jed Burtt still remembers the first time he and student Sean Williams were in the field.
“He was a freshman, and I invited him to catch and band birds with me,” Burtt recalls of the now-senior student from South Boston. “I overheard him describing a white-throated sparrow to some other students.”
“He was enthusiastically describing how bright the bird’s white throat and head stripes looked, highlighted by the yellow spot between its eyes and bill,” Burtt says. “He used a lot of words like ‘amazing’ and ‘wonderful.’ And I remember thinking, there’s someone special, someone with a real passion.”
Since then, professor and student have become research collaborators and friends. And they’re also about to become co-presenters of a college lecture on the evolution of feather and bill coloration. In his 34 years as an OWU faculty member, Burtt has never before presented a joint lecture with a student.
Burtt says when he was invited to lecture at Wheaton College in Norton, Massachusetts, he accepted and proposed the joint presentation. “It seemed like such a great idea,” Burtt says. “I thought, Why not? Sean had spoken to national audiences at professional meetings and done a good job. I felt comfortable about sharing a lecture with him.”
After the two present “Bird Coloration: It’s All about Turbulence, Bacteria, and Glare” at Wheaton, they’ll repeat the presentation at 19th annual Mass Audubon Birders Meeting at Bentley University in Waltham, Massachusetts.
This time, Williams received the invitation to speak at the annual meeting and invited his professor to share the bill.
Williams, a pre-professional zoology major, was invited to speak by event organizers and birding enthusiasts Betty and Wayne Petersen, who encouraged him to apply to Ohio Wesleyan when he was looking at colleges. Wayne is a 1966 OWU alumnus.
“They were interested in hearing from a ‘homegrown’ birder,” Williams says, “and one involved with the scientific community.”
As for Williams’ memories of his first face-to-face communication with Burtt, he says the two “hit it off right from the get-go.” After just a couple of months, the freshman Williams knew that he wanted to begin a research collaboration. With Burtt’s assistance, he began to study the differences between black and white frigate bird feathers.
Since then, Williams modestly notes that he’s worked on four research projects and presented at “a bunch” of professional conferences. Those conferences include the national meetings of both the American Ornithologists’ Union and the Wilson Ornithological Society.
In addition, his research on bird bill coloration has been published in “Birding” magazine, a bimonthly publication of the American Birding Association. He also is working with Burtt to prepare additional research findings for potential publication in scientific journals. That work includes two papers on the evolution and ecology of bill color, a look at the evolution of bathing habits of hummingbirds of tropical forests, and the results of feather structure and wear in frigate birds—the research he began in a freshman honors tutorial.
As for life after Ohio Wesleyan, Williams likely will enroll in the doctoral program at Michigan State University, where he has been awarded a University Enrichment Fellowship. Only about 20 of 500 accepted graduate students are awarded such fellowships, which include an annual stipend and health insurance. As a fellow, Williams will conduct research in his first and fifth years and teach his second, third, and fourth years.
When he graduates with his Ph.D., Williams expects to remain in a university setting. “I want to be a professor for sure,” he says.