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Leah Crenshaw holding a western meadowlark.

Alumna Receives NSF Graduate Fellowship for Avian Conservation Research

For Leah Crenshaw, M.S. ‘23 an active biologist and nature lover, finding harmony between the natural and human worlds is her dream.

Photo credit Kyra Johnson

For Leah Crenshaw, M.S. ‘23 an active biologist and nature lover, finding harmony between the natural and human worlds is her dream. Ecological preservation with no human intervention isn't the only way to build a sustainable future. For example, when she was studying the Texas frosted elfin butterfly during her undergrad to determine if it should be put on the endangered species list, she realized that they had adapted to transportation development and were, in fact, thriving. 

“[I am interested in] ways to advance, simultaneously, biodiversity conservation and human welfare around the world,” she said. 

Crenshaw said what started out as a potentially sad story, that development on prairie land into pasture had displaced the butterfly, actually ended up being positive because the host plant, the native wild indigo, started growing in rights-of-way, railroad tracks and other manmade areas, which then sustained the butterfly population. 

She uses that lens in her research now to find common ground between natural conservation and human development, including in her time at the University of Northern Colorado. 

Recently, Crenshaw was awarded the prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship Program (NSFGRFP), which she will use at Cornell University as she pursues her doctorate. The GRFP recognizes and supports outstanding graduating students who are pursuing research-based master’s and doctoral degrees in NSF-supported science, technology, engineering and mathematics fields. According to the NSF website, thousands of former fellowship recipients have gone on to become leaders in their field, including several Nobel Laureates and members of the National Academies.

“My dissertation has the potential to meet those goals of advancing both human and socioeconomic interests and avian conservation,” Crenshaw said. 

She came to UNC to pursue her master's degree in ecology, and, specifically, to study ornithology under Professor Lauryn Benedict, Ph.D., a bird behavioral and animal communication specialist. 

Benedict, a biology professor in the College of Natural and Health Sciences (NHS) is part of a global team working to document and describe the songs of female birds. In North America, many observers assume that every singing bird is a male, but recent research suggests that females sing too. With the help of citizen scientists, Benedict and her colleagues are working to collect samples of female bird songs from around the world. In her own backyard, she and UNC students are tackling this question by examining when and why canyon wren females sing. 

Crenshaw came to learn from Benedict, as she is particularly interested in studying female birds, which have been understudied, historically, she said. 

At UNC, she studied the western meadowlark, a yellow prairie bird that sounds likeR2-D2 and can be found along the Poudre River Trail. Crenshaw also led a team of undergraduate student researchers through the summer, for which she won a mentorship award.

Leah Crenshaw releasing a western meadowlark. Video courtesy: Leah Crenshaw.

“As a mentor, she is thoughtful and detail oriented. She trained students through all phases of the research process, from initial literature exploration to a polished final presentation,” Benedict said. “Additionally, Leah’s research activity led to teaching improvements in courses at UNC, as she incorporated her expertise into our Ecology labs.”

Crenshaw credits UNC for placing a much stronger emphasis on teaching for graduate students than most other universities. During her time here she took advantage of learning opportunities, including a Center for Enhancement of Teaching & Learning (CETL) workshop and NHS DEI day. 

Along with the mentorship award, she received a Dean’s Citation, Academic Scholar Award, Graduate Student Excellence in Mentorship Award and a School of Biological Sciences Graduate Assistantship. 

Benedict said that in the world of ornithology, Cornell is the place to be. 

“Cornell is the epicenter for bird research in the United States, so she’ll be in a very prestigious program,” Benedict said.  

— written by Christina Abel

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