Grace Smarsh, a 2010 graduate of the University Honors Program, has a life-long passion for working with animals. It is no surprise, then, that she graduated from UNH with a degree in Zoology and a minor in Animal Behavior, and has gone on to pursue her Ph.D in Biology at Texas A&M University. Grace’s current doctoral work involves tracing the vocal evolution of singing bats, which includes long research stints in Africa, where she studies their territorial habits. Below, Grace discusses her unique experiences as a former Honors student.
Can you tell us a little about your background, Grace?
I grew up in northwestern New Jersey. I loved being outside and I loved animals, and thus the outdoors and animals were a big part of my background. I used to catch frogs, crayfish, and minnows in our creek and spend hours exploring the woods. Exploring unknown “wild” places was, and still is, one of my favorite things to do. It was a game to get as close to the local wildlife as possible. Once when I was little I cut up onions and stuck them in my pockets so that the deer wouldn’t smell me and I could get close to them (it succeeded!). In high school I volunteered as a handler at the nearby wildlife refuge, which was full of interesting experiences, including the day that our Canadian lynx, Lady Jane, bit me through my jeans when she was feeling playful, and the first time (soon to result in many others) I bottle fed a baby raccoon in my lap. It’s no surprise that I still study wildlife. 4-H was also a big part of my life growing up. I was in 4-H for eight years, participating in obedience and agility training and trials with our dogs. I did animal therapy work with my dogs for five years at a local nursing home, and also did animal assisted therapy at a children’s hospital in Paterson, NJ for several years. I believe that 4-H, and the therapy work in particular, helped mold my perspectives and the way that I interact with people. Therapy work is something that I sorely miss, and I hope to get back into it one day.
Why did you decide to attend UNH and what did you major in?
I decided to attend UNH because of several reasons. One was pretty simple: I loved the campus and the feel of the university, with its tall pine trees and walkways through the woods, and nice brick buildings with its white trim. More importantly, it had everything to offer that I was interested in: the major (zoology), apparently good faculty, an honors program, study abroad programs, fencing (the sport I played throughout high school), and other cool extracurriculars. I majored in Zoology, and minored in Animal Behavior.
Were you involved with any sports or extracurricular activities while at UNH?
I was a very active member of the UNH fencing club, a competitive athletic club that participated in many club and team competitions, including Fencing Club Nationals every year. Junior year I was captain of the epee squad, and senior year I was fencing club president. That year I modified our annual banquet to include an alumni tournament which is still organized every year by subsequent presidents. I was a member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, and a member of the Phi Sigma Biological Honors Society. As a member of Phi Sigma, I regularly tutored other students; which was definitely enjoyable. I also participated in the Wildlife Society for a good two years. Senior year Stacy Farina and I co-TAed the Vertebrate Morphology lab.
How did the Honors Program contribute to your experience at UNH?
As a student participating in the Honors Program, I was expected to take a number of honors classes. Rather than being turned away by the extra work that honors classes expect, I often enjoyed the honors classes more. I took the two semesters of intro biology classes as honors, and both of these courses (taught by Dr. Andrew Laudano and Dr. John Burger) were excellent. I particularly appreciated Andy’s lectures, as he was excellent at teaching complicated cell pathways and organic chemistry. He encouraged class participation, which sometimes involved acting out cell pathways. I also greatly appreciated Dr. Burger’s lab. Because these two courses of introductory biology were the basis for a student majoring in biology, I think that taking these classes as honors with Honors professors definitely played a role in establishing my basic understanding of the fundamentals of biology for the rest of my UNH career.
I recall that I designated Dr. Michelle Scott’s Animal Behavior course as Honors. A fellow student and I had to design and conduct a research project as part of the honors designation. We had to write a full proposal, design the experiment, conduct the experiment, analyze the data, and write up a full report. This was, I believe, the first time I had ever gone through this entire research process on my own, and thus was a very useful exercise. The project itself was fun and interesting, and involved testing different types of memory in cats at an animal shelter. We also created a poster to present at the UNH undergraduate research conference.
I presented my honors thesis project at the annual research conference my senior year. I was one of 6 students in COLSA selected for an oral presentation. Dr. Michelle Scott taught me how to properly construct an oral presentation, and the presentation was highly successful. I still use her tips whenever I present in grad school.
What is your most significant memory as a college/Honors student? Please discuss any notable professors or courses which stand out to you.
In addition to the answers above, Dr. Scott was a very notable professor to me. I sort of “adopted” Dr. Scott as my unofficial advisor during my sophomore year of undergrad when I took her Animal Behavior course. Meeting with her about the Animal Behavior course was the start of many more meetings to come over the rest of my undergraduate career. Dr. Scott helped me design my proposal for the study abroad program that I applied for (and did go on). She advised me on many different topics, including classes to take, graduate schools and applications, career choices, and about life in general. She was a very interesting professor to talk to, and she really took a lot of joy in interacting with and guiding her students. Her Behavioral Ecology course (both lecture and lab) was excellent. It was a discussion-based course that involved reading a lot of research articles and discussion of theory. Her course really required you to think critically.
The study abroad program I participated in during my Junior year was a very significant time in undergrad. The program was the SIT Tanzania: Wildlife Ecology and Conservation program. In this program, we travelled to different places in northern Tanzania (such as Serengeti National Park, Lake Natron, and the Usambara Mountains) and learned wildlife research techniques and conducted wildlife projects. The program was also very culturally immersive. We stayed in a homestay, learned Kiswahili, had lectures on development, macroeconomics, health issues, and so forth, and conducted social-based studies in the villages. The program culminated in an independent field project that we designed and conducted somewhere in northern Tanzania. I learned so much in one semester in a variety of topics, and my eyes were opened from the experience of living in one of the poorest countries in the world.
Did you write a thesis while at the Honors Program?
My thesis was based off of the independent study project I conducted in Tanzania. My project was on the diversity of animals that “use” termite mounds in different habitats, as well as how the animals use them. I visited GPSed termite mounds in the riparian, savannah, and acacia woodland habitats and recorded various animal signs. I also did vegetation plots in the different habitats to characterize the habitats.
What did you do after graduation?
After graduation, I spent the summer doing illustration work of newly discovered species of horseflies for Dr. Burger, and then I entered graduate school at Texas A&M University.
What interesting things you have been doing in recent years?
I have been doing my Phd in Biology at Texas A&M University. I am currently in my 3rd year. The lab that I am in studies the neurophysiological basis and evolution of singing in Mexican free-tailed bats. My dissertation work focuses more on the evolution and behavioral aspect: I am studying the evolution of singing in a territorial context of two species of Megadermatid bats in east Africa. During the first year of my graduate career I was awarded the highly competitive NSF pre-doctoral fellowship (NSF Graduate Research Fellowship Program). I also received grants for equipment from Bat Conservation International and Wildlife Acoustics. The fellowship and grants have allowed me to do fieldwork in east Africa. Last year I did my pilot season in northern Tanzania for seven months. During the pilot season I established a team of Tanzanians, established field sites (which involved a lot of traveling, dealing with bureaucratic issues, and finding my target species), and collected behavioral observations and also acoustic recordings. I will be going back again in May for close to a year to conduct a suite of field experiments, including radiotracking and song playbacks. It feels like every day is an adventure when doing fieldwork in Tanzania, but detailing all of the interesting parts of fieldwork requires a lot of elaboration unsuited for a (somewhat) brief response to this question.
Is there any advice you would like to share with incoming, current, or graduating students?
Work hard and dream big. Don’t let people tell you that you are too ambitious, or naïve to accomplish what you really want to. The only thing that limits you is your perspective.