Taking Flight
Taking Flight

Senior biology major Kristen Oliver’s path from animal-lover to research scientist

In high school, Kristen Oliver kept herself busy—working as a waitress, playing varsity softball, excelling in multiple honors classes—and, sometimes, caring for baby squirrels.


Her mother was a veterinary technician who often brought her work home. This meant Kristen shared her house with everything from raccoons to cats to baby squirrels, which she helped care for and release back into the wild. “I grew up around animals,” she says. “We had four cats, a dog, a turtle, a fish, and two sugar gliders at one point. It was basically like a zoo.”

And she loved it. “I’ve known since elementary school that I wanted to work with animals,” she says. Kristen speaks quickly and confidently, small owl-shaped earrings peeking out from behind her straight brown hair. This is someone who knows what she wants.

Just like her love for animals, Kristen goal-oriented drive has been around since she was young. She says her family always encouraged her to follow her interests. Giving up simply wasn’t an option—if there were obstacles, you figured out how to get around them. “My mom’s always kept us busy,” she says. “I have to credit her because she keeps me going.”

By the time she reached high school, Kristen knew a biology degree would be the first step toward her dream of working with animals. But she also knew she wanted a solid foundation of general knowledge, too. Coker was the perfect fit. “When I got on campus, I knew,” she says. “It just felt right.”

Kristen quickly succeeded in the close-knit biology department and thrived on the intensity of the coursework. “They always encourage us to ask questions and challenge us in class,” she says. But when asked what she loves most about studying biology at Coker, her answer is swift and emphatic: the focus on student research.

It didn’t take long for Kristen to get involved in research. In her freshman year, she began assisting with research in Coker’s labs, at Kalmia Gardens and the nearby Carolina Sandhills National Wildlife Refuge. Kristen values her early research experience for helping her build specific skills (such as species identification) as well as a general understanding of how scientific research works.

For someone with a mind as inquisitive as Kristen’s, it was endlessly fascinating. “It’s like solving a puzzle,” she says. “It keeps me asking questions and answering questions, which is what I like to do.” But it wasn’t until the summer after her freshman year, when she landed an internship at the Center for Birds of Prey in Awendaw, SC, when Kristen really found a focus.

“I knew nothing, absolutely nothing about birds going into it,” she says. “They educated me on birds, and why they’re important, and how gorgeous they are up close. I learned identification, anatomy, training and falconry techniques, husbandry skills—just an enormous amount of things.”

Her interest only grew from there. On a study abroad trip to Costa Rica (when she wasn’t scuba diving, dolphin-watching or horseback riding through the tropical rainforest), Kristen completed an internship at a local zoo. There, she had the opportunity to train a small tropical screech owl—her favorite memory from the experience.

The more she learned, the more Kristen realized just how much more was left to study. “Birds are…they’re pretty awesome to me,” she says. “I still don’t know a ton about them, and I think that’s why I’m interested in studying them.”

In the summer of 2013, Kristen took her passion to the next level. After writing a grant to secure her own funding, she led an original study on the bacterial inhibiting properties of the uropygial gland.

Located at the base of the tail, the uropygial gland releases a secretion that birds spread throughout their feathers while preening. Its purposes, however, are unclear. “Most people think of the uropygial gland as providing oil on the feathers to help with waterproofing, but normally that’s only found in marine birds,” Kristen says. “There’s not a lot of research done on it, and that’s why I did it.”

Kristen’s project aimed to figure out if the gland might serve another purpose—specifically, helping to stop the growth of harmful bacteria.

o test her hypothesis, Kristen trapped small birds, sampled the secretion, and co-incubated it with bacteria. “We used two different types of bacteria: E. coli and bacillus licheniformis, which has a feather-degrading keratinase, so it can be really harmful to birds,” she says. “And that’s the one that we got really cool results with.”

While previous studies examined whether or not the secretion affects bacterial growth (a yes or no answer), Kristen’s procedure—which she created—took it a step further by calculating a specific percentage of bacterial inhibition. The higher the percentage, the more bacteria was being stopped.

The results? Almost 99% on some samples. While she’s quick to point out that the sample size was too small to produce statistically significant results, Kristen can’t hide her grin as she explains the potential significance of her findings.

“It’s almost an antibiotic property, so, those are really big when it comes to human implications,” she explains. “If this gland can potentially help inhibit other bacteria, it possibly could be transferred into medicine.”

As she dives into the scientific details of her study, Kristen exudes enthusiasm about gland secretions. You can’t help but share in her excitement. “Kristen started off at Coker with a high level of maturity,” says Jen Borgo, assistant biology professor. “The growth I've seen in her over the last three years has been in her excitement and certainty regarding her path in life. Every time I see her, she is even more enthusiastic about studying birds, and it's contagious.”

Kristen will spend this summer assisting with postdoctoral research on grassland birds at the University of Oklahoma, only taking a brief break to present the findings from her study at the annual conference for the Association of Field Ornithologists. In the future, she plans on pursuing a PhD. She might work as a professor or at a non-profit conservation group. Making a scientific discovery is, of course, the ultimate goal—but mainly, she’ll be happy as long as she’s following her passion.

Wherever it takes her, one thing is clear: this is just the beginning. Kristen’s career promises to reach spectacular heights.



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