Looking for Answers ... and Questions
Splitting time between field and laboratory, biology major Sarah Flanagan '11 is on a remarkable scientific journey of discovery. From Maine to Zanzibar she went from analyzing butterfly DNA and studying the mating selection of lizards to exploring the migratory behavior of birds and investigating the lives of elephant shrews.
“I love coming up with questions and then answering them, or trying to,” Flanagan said. “Or asking questions and coming up with more questions.”
After graduating from the American School of Warsaw in 2007, she came to Colby as a Presidential Scholar—a designation for the top academic students in each freshman class. At Colby Flanagan found research projects that appealed to her natural curiosity and interest in biology.
As a Presidential Scholar she had opportunities to work one-on-one with a faculty member from the very start. Before she arrived as a first-year, she was matched with Herb Wilson, the Leslie Brainerd Arey Professor of Biosciences. Initially she worked on Wilson's “Arrival Dates” project, recording when migratory birds arrive in Maine.
Flanagan expanded her research repertoire. The summer after her first year, she worked with Wilson and a colleague on a population genetics study on dispersal rates of butterflies in bogs. “Herb caught all these butterflies that summer and shipped them down to South Carolina, where I learned how to do genetic work to develop microsatellites, which are non-repeating patterns of DNA unique to different species,” Flanagan recalled, explaining how they tracked the butterflies. “It's like a genetic fingerprint.”
Working under the tutelage of Wilson's colleague Stacey Lance, who taught at Colby from 2002 to 2007, Flanagan continued on this project until she went abroad in the spring of 2010. The work with Wilson and Lance was published in Conservation Resources Journal.
Wilson credits Flanagan's hard work for her success and describes her as a self-motivated biologist. “She's just absolutely wonderful,” Wilson said. “A quick study, very conscientious.”
As a senior Flanagan explored new territory for her honors thesis, working with Associate Professor of Biology Cathy Bevier. Bevier was able to help Flanagan design a project involving mate selection in lizards.
“Sarah set up a series of experiments in the fall to measure male endurance and some aspects of the physiology of the male and put them together with females to see if females would show a choice between these males,” Bevier explained. “So now she's got behavioral data and she's got biochemical data on the male, and she's starting to put the pieces together.”
“She has a good eye for experimental design,” Bevier said. “She's diligent, she's very smart and passionate about this field. It's been fun also working with her as she looks forward to graduate school. And she's already been accepted to two top programs, looking to get her Ph.D. in ecology or biology.”
Beyond her research, Flanagan has been very active on campus, as president of the Colby Dancers, a trip leader with the Outing Club, and leading COOT (orientation trips) for incoming students.
And she did it all on the fast track. Having earned college credits through the International Baccalaureate diploma program in Poland, Flanagan is able to graduate from Colby after just three years. Summing up her experience here, she said: “It's been pretty rewarding.”