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Citadel News Service
5 Oct 2010

Cadet's research work not a bird-brained idea

Cadet Preston Payne, a junior from November Company, is one of many cadets at The Citadel conducting research in a variety of fields, from engineering to biology. It is unique because The Citadel is not a research institution and students have greater opportunity to work side-by-side with their professors in the lab. 

Payne and biology professor Paul Nolan are studying West Nile virus in the House Finch, a small and gregarious species of bird found nearly everywhere in North America, including right here in the Lowcountry. If you have bird feeders in your yard, you probably have seen the House Finch eating from the feeders.

Nolan and Payne are examining whether the overall health of the birds is a factor in fending off an active infection of West Nile after being exposed to it by mosquitoes. Payne presented the research at an international conference where other presenters were experts in their fields and master’s- and doctoral-level students.

Before coming to The Citadel, I knew that I wanted to conduct research in the biology department to gain experience and increase my understanding of the scientific method. After arriving here, I approached my advisor, Dr. Paul Nolan, and asked him about opportunities to get involved with research on campus. The rest was history. 

Cadet Preston Payne presented research on West Nile virus in the House Finch at the 2010 Animal Behavior Society Meeting at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va., this past summer.

I jumped head first into Dr. Nolan’s research project dealing with all things House Finches. I trapped birds, measured birds’ wings and beaks, and took birds’ blood. After all that, I still do not feel bird-brained! All joking aside, assisting Dr. Nolan has tremendously improved my research skills and lab techniques.

After proving my worth and taking a semester’s research credit, Dr. Nolan recommended that I accompany him to a scientific conference. I was excited that he would extend this type of invitation. It was an honor to present our research at the 2010 Animal Behavior Society Meeting at the College of William and Mary in Williamsburg, Va. I was nervous at first, but the people at the conference were very warm and friendly. It was pretty crazy, considering these were the “big wigs” in the field. I was in the company of people who had articles in magazines like Time and The Economist and professional journals like Nature. 

At the conference, I was able to present a poster about West Nile Virus (WNV) in House Finches. Other studies had looked at general populations affected by the West Nile virus, but not at individual organisms. This is where we came in. Dr. Nolan and I looked for correlations and trends between birds infected with the virus and those that did not have the virus.

I really enjoyed conducting this research, especially the field work. I have always loved nature and this research allowed me to be outside and study birds. It combined two passions of mine, nature and science.

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