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Posted: Tuesday Apr 10, 2012

April 10, 2012

Dr. James Kellam knew when he was in 8th grade that he wanted to study birds.

“My social studies teacher gave me an assignment to interview someone with a career I might be interested in,” Dr. Kellam, assistant professor of biology at Saint Vincent College, recalled. “I interviewed Dr. Charles R. Blem, a professor and ornithologist at Virginia Commonwealth University, near my childhood home in Richmond, Virginia. He really took time to talk with me about my interest in birds and inspired me to pursue ornithology. Twenty years later, I saw him at a professional conference and had an opportunity to thank him. I hope I have many opportunities to influence young people in the same way.”

With his vocation identified, Dr. Kellam chose to pursue his undergraduate study at the College of the Atlantic in Bar Harbor, Maine, a small college where he was able to model his own curriculum and develop close relationships with faculty and other students. “I received a great education there,” he noted, “and focused mainly on science for classes and birds for research. It gave me an appreciation for the benefit of a liberal arts college.”

He completed an internship with a professor at the Smithsonian Conservation and Research Center (now called the Smithsonian Conservation Biology Institute) in northern Virginia. “It was a research outpost for the National Zoo and kind of reminded me of Jurassic Park with all these giant animals,” Dr. Kellam explained, “but I just studied the birds. I also did a second internship studying a cooperative breeding species, the Acorn woodpecker, at the University of California at Berkeley.”

After earning a bachelor of arts degree in human ecology in 1996, he continued to graduate school at Purdue University where he wanted to study with two nationally-known ornithologists he had read extensively about, Dr. Jeffrey R. Lucas and Dr. Kerry Rabenold. I became very interested in Downy woodpeckers because they exhibited courtship-like behaviors in December when most other birds had no interest in their former reproductive partner.” He completed a Ph.D. in biological sciences in 2003 and wrote a dissertation entitled, Downy Woodpecker pair bond maintenance in winter. He was honored with the H. Edwin Umbarger Award for the Outstanding Graduate Student in Research, the Frederick N. Andrews Doctoral Fellowship and the National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship (honorable mention).

After a year teaching biology at Ithaca College and doing research on crows at Cornell University, he became a visiting assistant professor at Franklin and Marshall College for three years before accepting the opportunity to teach at Saint Vincent in the fall of 2007. “Latrobe was relatively close to my family and I knew I wanted to be at a small liberal arts college,” he noted. “The opportunity to teach wildlife biology at a place with Benedictine values and high moral character is what attracted me. I was also impressed with the required senior research program. It really is a very large undertaking and it gives the students something to be proud of and something to be an expert in. Faculty-student relationships are very important to me so that is what my mission is at Saint Vincent.” In addition to the wildlife biology course, he also teaches general biology, ornithology, human biology for non-science majors and conservation biology.

“I really like teaching at Saint Vincent,” Dr. Kellam offered. “A lot of teaching is that you have the concepts you want to communicate but the students have all these other things on their minds so you have to trick them into learning some other things. You have to be an entertainer of sorts. I think I’m really good at that. Teaching non-majors is my opportunity to raise their curiosity about something they didn’t think they would be interested in.”

Dr. Kellam’s current research focuses on an analysis of pair bond maintenance, foraging behavior, microhabitat use, home range, territoriality and physiological condition of woodpeckers and the effect of environmental stressors on the sleep quality of songbirds. He has six cages that have computer controlled cameras with infrared lighting mounted on them so that the birds can be photographed day and night to monitor their activity and sleep quality. “I want to know if a bird has had a stressful day and how that impacts the quality of sleep the following night,” he explained. “Stress in this situation involves mild food deprivation. Sam Walters, an environmental science major, is very involved in the research and in the daily care of the birds.”

Dr. Kellam has published several peer-reviewed articles in both professional journals and the popular press, written book sections in Second Breeding Bird Atlas of Pennsylvania, and made presentations at research seminars, scientific panels and public venues. An interesting presentation entitled, “Finding Benedictine Values in the Life of Birds,” was part of the Last Lecture Series co-sponsored by the Saint Vincent College Education Club and Alpha Lambda Delta.

Dr. Kellam enjoys living near campus on Arnold Palmer Drive in Unity Township. “In warm weather, I commute by bicycle,” he said. “I avoid the highway and bike through the shopping plazas and Winnie Palmer Nature Reserve. It is part of my training for the triathlons (biking/swimming/running) I enter in Pittsburgh and other locations. I am also on a YMCA masters swimming team.”

He also is active in a number of community service activities at his church, First Presbyterian Church of Greensburg. “I am a member of the church choir, and serve as a deacon which means I usher and help prepare the communion elements,” he said. “I also help recruit volunteers for the American Red Cross Blood Drive, using my biology expertise to have some fun talking about vampires who drink blood from their victims.”

He also gives talks to school groups at the Nature Reserve and goes to Powdermill Nature Reserve to look for woodpeckers. “In the spring I like to find nests of different woodpecker species to analyze their habitat preferences.”


Photo: Dr. James Kellam displays a mounted hawk that was used by a student research assistant to study how Northern Flickers, a type of woodpecker, respond to predators near their nests. 


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