2020 Early Professional Award Winners: Nick Mason, Sara Kaiser, & Jen Walsh

Over the course of this spring and summer, we’re highlighting all of the previously announced recipients of this year’s AOS awards on the blog. This week, the 2020 Early Professional Awards.

The American Ornithological Society (AOS) is pleased to announce Dr. Nicholas A. Mason, Dr. Sara Kaiser, and Dr. Jennifer Walsh as the 2020 recipients of the society’s Early Professional Awards, the James G. Cooper Early Professional Award and the Ned K. Johnson Early Investigator Award.

First awarded in 2009, the James G. Cooper Early Professional Award recognizes early-career researchers (through the end of their third year post terminal degree) for outstanding scientific research and contributions to the ornithological profession. The 2020 James G. Cooper Early Professional Award is presented to Dr. Nicholas A. Mason.

Dr. Mason is currently a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellow at UC Berkeley and the Museum of Vertebrate Zoology and will start at Louisiana State University and the Louisiana Museum of Natural Sciences as an Assistant Professor and Curator of Birds in August 2020. He has advanced ornithology through his extensive research, service, and teaching. His research centers on the ecological and evolutionary processes that underlie speciation, diversification, and the evolution of phenotypic diversity in birds. Furthermore, his research increasingly focuses on understanding anthropogenic impacts on bird populations. While Dr. Mason’s research interests are broad and interdisciplinary, natural history collections offer a unifying and consistent theme, and he is dedicated to promoting their growth and welfare. He has published several well-cited papers on vocal evolution in tanagers, systematics and taxonomy in various songbirds, and local adaptation in larks, among other topics. Dr. Mason’s training includes a Ph.D. from Cornell University under Irby Lovette, a M.Sc. from San Diego State University under Kevin Burns, and a B.A. from Vassar College. In addition to his research contributions, Dr. Mason is one of the most active early professionals in the AOS community. He is the current chair of the AOS Early Professionals Committee, the former chair of the AOS Student Affairs Committee, and currently serves on five additional AOS committees. In recognition of these contributions, he became an AOS Elective Member in 2017 and was awarded the Marion Jenkinson Service Award in 2018. Dr. Mason has also excelled as an instructor, winning awards for his innovation and performance as a teacher and mentor, and has published multiple papers on pedagogical methods focused on promoting underrepresented demographics in the life sciences.

The Ned K. Johnson Early Investigator Award recognizes work by an ornithologist early in their career (four to seven years post terminal degree) who shows distinct promise for future leadership in the profession. The award was established in 2006 to honor Ned K. Johnson, a lifelong supporter of the American Ornithologists’ Union and its former president (1996–1998). Two Ned K. Johnson Early Investigator Awards are being presented in 2020, one to Dr. Sara Kaiser and one to Dr. Jennifer Walsh.

Dr. Kaiser joined the Cornell Lab of Ornithology in August 2019 as a Research Ecologist and Director of the Hubbard Brook Field Ornithology Program, a year-long research and training program she developed to provide undergraduates an entry point into field ornithology at the Hubbard Brook Experimental Forest in New Hampshire. She has demonstrated leadership in ornithology through wide-ranging contributions including ornithological research, student mentorship, field courses, and conservation as a professional working in multiple research sectors. Dr. Kaiser’s research focuses on an integrative understanding of how the environment shapes the evolution of complex social behavior, especially reproductive strategies and cooperation. Dr. Kaiser’s work has advanced our understanding of the role of social behavior in population and evolutionary dynamics involving sexual selection, population differentiation, and adaptation to environmental change. Her research links insights about the ecological and phylogenetic context of social behavior with the underlying neuroendocrine and molecular mechanisms using large-scale experimental manipulations and demographic field studies. Dr. Kaiser’s research has included studies of warbler, sparrow, babbler, and thrush populations in North America, the Caribbean Islands, and Borneo, and comparisons of life histories and reproductive strategies of temperate and tropical birds. Her training includes a Ph.D. from Cornell University in behavioral ecology under Michael Webster and Scott Sillett, an interdisciplinary M.S. from Michigan State University in ecology, evolutionary biology and behavior under Catherine Lindell, and a B.S. from Iowa State University in zoology under the mentorship of Carol Vleck. Dr. Kaiser conducted postdoctoral research at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, and the Smithsonian Center for Conservation Genomics with Robert Fleischer and Thomas Martin. Prior to her doctoral training, Dr. Kaiser taught field courses as a faculty instructor of conservation biology in New Zealand and worked as a Project Manager on the California Channel Islands on the front lines of island bird conservation. Dr. Kaiser has invested extensively in service to AOS and leadership within the broader scientific community; she became an AOS Elective Councilor in 2019 and currently serves as co-chair of the Membership Committee, chaired the AOS Early Professionals Committee for three years, served on the AOS Membership Committee and Membership Coordination Committee, and co-organized workshops, symposia, and social events with the Student Affairs Committee and Diversity and Inclusion Committee.

Dr. Walsh is a postdoctoral associate at the Cornell Laboratory of Ornithology, where she utilizes genomic tools to address questions in avian ecology, evolution, and conservation. She has an excellent service record, and her accomplishments over the course of her early career indicate outstanding potential for leadership in ornithology. Dr. Walsh’s leadership qualities are evident from her broad range of contributions and accomplishments that include research, teaching, and student mentorship. Since 2011, Dr. Walsh has studied demography, behavior, nesting, ecology, conservation, taxonomy, genomics, and hybridization in Saltmarsh and Nelson’s sparrows, addressing nearly every aspect of their biology. More recently, Dr. Walsh expanded into an examination of the comparative genomics of four sparrow species that independently colonized salt marsh habitats, demonstrating evidence for parallel evolution. Her research on divergence along saline-freshwater gradients has shed light on the role of ecological speciation in contributing to diversification among New World sparrows. In addition, Dr. Walsh has leveraged the resolution from genomic sequencing to characterize diversification across cryptic species and subspecies boundaries, most recently in populations of San Francisco Bay Song Sparrows. In recognition of her ornithological acumen and communication abilities, Dr. Walsh was invited to teach the flagship ornithology course at Cornell University in spring 2020. She has demonstrated a strong commitment to mentoring and to AOS service, and her colleagues and fellow committee members have noted her outstanding contributions to AOS committees, symposia, and workshops. Dr. Walsh is currently an active contributor to the AOS Early Professionals Committee and a co-chair of the Student Presentation and Travel Awards Committee, and she organized a workshop at the most recent AOS meeting on navigating ornithology as an early-career professional.

Awardees receive a cash prize and a framed certificate and are invited to present plenary talks at AOS’s annual meeting. In recognition of their outstanding work in the early years of their careers, AOS is pleased to recognize Dr. Mason, Dr. Kaiser, and Dr. Walsh with this year’s Early Professional Awards.

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