Winning the Nancy Klamm Award for Best Undergraduate Oral Presentation at the Wilson Ornithological Society’s annual conference in April left Francesca Foltz feeling overwhelmed.
“I was shaking,” says Foltz, a biology major who will complete her education at Loyola Marymount University in December. “I put a lot of effort into the presentation, but I didn’t expect to win.”
Foltz captured the award for “Investigating Noninvasive Methods of Hormone Quantification in Great Black-backed Gulls,” based on research she has conducted since the end of her sophomore year as part of a team led by Kristen Covino, assistant professor of biology, and in collaboration with the Gulls of Appledore Research Group, Shoals Marine Laboratory and additional LMU student researchers Allie Waller and Katie Inkrott.
During breeding season, Great Black-backed Gulls are notoriously aggressive, to the extent that researchers, like Covino, who study their habits on Appledore Island off the coast of Maine, are required to wear bicycle helmets to protect themselves from dive-bombing gulls. A better understanding of their physiology is important, in part because the population is declining at an alarming rate. “While they’re not yet an endangered species, we want to learn more about how we can prevent them from getting to that point,” Foltz explains.
To determine the potential role of a spike in the breeding gulls’ hormonal levels in their increased aggression, Covino’s team is conducting research to validate the reliability of fecal samples in quantifying the hormones. While blood sampling remains the gold standard for such measurements, the ability to use fecal samples carries significant advantages. “You don’t have to capture the bird and stick it with a needle, which risks causing a spike in the stress hormone,” Foltz explains.
Foltz took an unconventional path to LMU. As a junior in high school, a severe bout with Lyme disease forced her to drop out. She earned her diploma by taking the General Educational Development exam, then spent a year at a local college before transferring to LMU. “It was scary after not being part of student life for three years, but as soon as I stepped on the campus I knew it was the right place for me,” Foltz recalls. “I’ve always been a passionate student, and I rarely saw that passion reflected in my learning environment until I got to LMU. And the faculty in the biology department truly want you to succeed.”
Determined to make the most of her college experience, Foltz participated in wide-ranging activities — even joining LMU’s Crimson Players improv group. But the pivotal moment came when Covino invited her to become part of her team. “I had always wanted to get involved in research,” Foltz says. “I took a class with Dr. Covino and was just so inspired by her enthusiasm. When she asked me to join her research project, I jumped right in.”
Winning the award has led Foltz to contemplate graduate school. “As someone who really likes having concrete plans, I’m not sure what my plan at this point is,” she says, smiling. “But over the last year I’ve realized that I love doing research, and I would like to continue with that in some form.”