Malory Owen (Class of 2018)

photo of Malory Owen

  • junior Zoology major with an Environmental Science co-major
  • minor in Geography and Certificate in Geographic Information Systems
  • from Dover, IN
  • College of Arts and Science Ambassador
  • Undergraduate Summer Scholar (2016)
  • research on the monogamous behavior of prairie voles at the Ecological Research Center
  • member of Collegiate Chorale; member Sketch Writing and Acting Group
"Make opportunities. Most of the great things that happened for me at Miami have involved me going out on a limb and saying, 'This is what I want.' You have to be able to make yourself a little vulnerable, and I think a lot of people are afraid of that."

Why Miami?

"I'm from nearby Dover, Indiana, and I had always believed I would go to college somewhere really different from Miami. When I started to actually look closer, Miami's focus on undergraduate teaching became my biggest draw. I don't think I would have gotten an education with that kind of focus on me anywhere else.

"In high school I had gotten straight A's, and then I came to Miami and got a C in both French and Chemistry my first semester! Obviously there was a bit of a learning curve, particularly in what professors expect from you, what exams are like, and how the processes of thinking change at the college level. After that first semester, I figured out how to take notes and study properly, and now I'm happy to say that my classes are going really well and I genuinely enjoy them.

"Miami's emphasis on undergraduate education is what got me involved with research firsthand. I know a lot of undergrads at bigger schools would probably never have these same opportunities. I was so ready to jump in that I declared both my zoology major and my environmental science co-major at orientation! I'd wanted to work with biological conservation since I was 3 years old. This is my passion, and Miami helped me find purpose in my goals.

"As an introvert, at first I was worried that I'd have a tough time talking to people, but I ended up making great friends. I was able to find my my niche. That's something a lot of my younger friends have told me they're worried about finding in college, and I say, 'You'll find them. Don't worry, as long as you put yourself out there!'"

Best Miami Experiences

"Again, Miami's focus on undergraduates is something I don't think I could find at very many other colleges. This is what led me to doing research with professor of biology Dr. Nancy Solomon, who I talked to during freshman orientation. The summer before my freshman year, I'd worked with Dr. Solomon on a project involving feral cats, and so later on she asked me if I was interested in helping her with her research on prairie vole behavior. Prairie voles are little rodents, similar to field mice, and they're one of the few mammals that are considered to be socially monogamous.

Malory Owen sings in a solo quartet of Mozart's Regina Coeli for Collegiate Chorale.

"I began working on that project at the Ecological Research Center's (ERC) animal behavior lab, along with Dr. Solomon and professor of biology Brian Keane (from the Hamilton campus). They have been huge influences and helpers in my life. I've also been working closely with Connor Lambert, a graduate student in biology. With their guidance and support, I eventually was able to apply and receive a 2016 Undergraduate Summer Scholarship to start my own research project.

"On the opposite end of the spectrum, I love being involved with Collegiate Chorale, a vocal ensemble, and Sketch Writing and Acting Group (SWAG). I was always singing and performing in high school, so I've been so glad that I get to continue that. Chorale is a mixed choir, both men and women, that sings classical choral arrangements, and SWAG is a group of students who write and perform original comedy sketches. These experiences have exposed me to the artistic, creative side of Miami, helping me continue to grow different parts of myself throughout my college career."

Miami and the Liberal Arts

"A wider understanding of things beyond your discipline is necessary if you want to have any positive effect on the world. You can't just focus on one part. My majors, Zoology and Environmental Science, are very closely related, but they include aspects that stretch me beyond my comfort zone. I've had to take math and ethics classes, for example, since we cannot rely solely on science to make our ethical decisions. Science is only a tool we use to better inform our ethical decisions.

"I've also taken a number of creative arts and English classes as electives, and I appreciate them for how they incorporate various sides of human nature and different perspectives of right and wrong. They've definitely given me a chance to think about things other than what I'm learning in textbooks. Many of these issues can be hard for science majors and scientists to think about!

"I love animals and nature very much. I have deeply rooted values to help and protect them. I also have a knack for scientific thinking, so I believe my majors are the best path for me to make a good impact on the world beyond myself.

"Two classes really stick out for me: BIO 206 [Evolutionary Biology], taught by professor of biology Douglas Miekle, and BIO 209 [Fundamentals of Ecology], taught by visiting professor Kenneth Oswald. Dr. Miekle's class was about evolution, and it was one of the first classes that really challenged me to use both the left and right parts of my brain. The same thing occurred with Dr. Oswald's course on ecology. Evolution and ecology are very closely related, challenging me to think on a broader scope. These classes really helped me solidify my way of scientific thinking, and really understand that everything is truly connected.

"Classes like these have made me even more interested in going into conservation, which includes a huge span of information. You can't just know the way an animal body or a river works; you need to understand how they work together. My two majors, along with my geography minor, all come together to help me see the big picture. I plan to go to grad school for a PhD, and then I'd like to work on helping to prevent habitat destruction."

Research on Prairie Voles

Malory Owen conducts field research at Miami's Ecology Research Station.

"At the ERC I've been working with Dr. Solomon and grad student Connor Lambert. We examine certain receptors in the brains of prairie voles to see what effect, if any, they have on their monogamous behaviors, which are rare in the animal world.

"To do this, we place little radio collars on each and every vole and give them a toe ID, enabling us to track them at any given time. We can usually get within a meter precision of their location on a big field in the ERC. They are able to behave and interact with each other normally, but by tracking them with GPS, we get an incredible amount of data. After 15 weeks we can see if there're certain voles hanging out with certain other voles for a significant amount of time — from which we can infer that they're socially monogamous.

"We originally released a total of 256 voles with collars, 16 animals for each of our 16 enclosures, each measuring 30 meters by 30 meters. We're at about an 85% survival rate, but they have lots of babies. And although the babies don't have a collar, we're able to take DNA samples and record how many there are born within each enclosure. The males are more likely to roam, while the females are more inclined to stay near their nests.

"Connor Lambert's experiment involves seeing how voles with a receptor or without one behave any differently. I've helped him analyze the data, and for my own research project I'm looking to see if the vegetation at the nest sites of female prairie voles has any effect on their lifetime reproductive success. I track how many babies they have, in how many litters. It involves the same voles that Connor is tracking, as well as a lot of the resources that were set up in Dr. Solomon's lab.

"Every few weeks I go into the field with a square made from PVC pipe, and I put it over their nests and see if there's any difference in the types of vegetation. My hypothesis could be that thorny plants would lead to mothers having more pups that survive because predators can't get through the bristles. Another hypothesis might be that if the mother voles have a lot of food that they like, that will help them have more litters. I have different variables to lead to different sets of hypotheses, which are always based on the large amounts of data we collect.

"I've come to realize that research is hard work! For this project, I usually start working at 6 am Monday, Wednesday, and Friday during the school year and 6 am every day over the summer. You have to go out there in the field and stand in the hot sun for hours at a time. When your data isn't telling you what you want it to tell you, it can be frustrating.

"However, the biggest thing that these research experiences have done for me was to let me know that while they can be hard, it's the sort of work I'd love to make into a career, especially once I get into my own more personal interests — such as giant pandas!"

Advice to Students

Malory Owen (dressed as a graduated cylinder for Halloween) poses with friend Nick Witzeman.

"Make opportunities. Most of the great things that happened for me at Miami have involved me going out on a limb and saying, 'This is what I want.' You have to be able to make yourself a little vulnerable, and I think a lot of people are afraid of that.

"For example, I walked up to Dr. Oswald after class one day and said, 'I'd like to be your TA for next year, if you need one,' and he was like, 'Sure!' It may be obvious that you need to get to know your professors, but because sometimes you have to take a risk, it can be a little scary. It's not particularly easy to say, 'I'm not perfect.'

"Another piece of advice I have may be disagreeable to some, but learn how to pace yourself. I'd say that although it's great to be involved in extracurriculars, some of that can really take up a lot of your time. And don't force yourself to take too many credit hours. Learn how to give yourself enough space to do what you're working on well, and not feel pressured to take 22 credit hours and be president of 3 clubs. Our society makes exhaustion a competition, but the only way to really be great is to take care of yourself.

"Finally, I'd like to say that you should be aware that you're going to fail sometimes. By no means is that a mark of your worth as an individual or your ability to succeed. I really struggled with this issue during my freshman year — I wanted to switch to an easier major or just chalk it up to my own ineptitude. You can't let yourself fall into this kind of despair.

"If what you are doing was easy and worthwhile, everyone would be doing it. Remember that when you're working on your 10th draft of an abstract!"

[February 2017]