How would you describe your background? (I.E. where you are from? How did you first get interested in your area of research? Etc.)
I was born in Hungary, and I always wanted to be an ornithologist. I never wanted to be anything else, so when I got the chance to come to the US to study at university I continued focusing on birds and I’ve been doing that ever since.
The neuroscience aspect came during my Ph.D. when I was a neurobiology and behavior Ph.D. student at Cornell, and I started becoming interested in how the brain of the birds that I study differ from the brain of other birds. We study birds that are non-parental. We study parasites that don’t engage in parental care at all and that distinguishes them from 99% of bird species that are parental.
What is your favorite part about research? (Learning new things you didn’t expect, presenting the information at conferences, the writing process, etc.)
The data! I love looking at data, I love finding out what the birds have told us, what the brain cells have told us, what the students have discovered, and all those combine to what the data are showing, how they are distributed, and how they are related to our hypothesis and predictions. I love to get the stage where I get to look at data.
What made the University of Illinois a good place to conduct your research?
There are many reasons. One of them is that I got a really fancy job, it’s a named professorship which is an honor to hold. I get to study birds that breed or nest within 5 miles of my home. We work in tree farms in east Urbana and I get to sleep in my own bed while I’m doing fieldwork which is really fantastic. The most important thing is that my colleagues are interesting, accomplished, and successful. They are interested in things that I am interested in so we have a lot of commonality in our research approaches, in our questions, in the way we think about science in general.
I’ve also had a really great set of students who have joined my lab since I moved here. That is something I really cherish.
Why study parasitic birds? Why do you believe this is a worthwhile area of research?
The exceptions to the rule are always interesting. When you are studying illness, for instance, you always want to compare it to healthy individuals. When you study parasites, you want to compare them to regular birds that are parental, build their nests, incubate their eggs, [and] take care of their babies. It allows us to understand how unique traits evolve, how unique traits are accommodated by the genome, by the brain, and by the physiology of the birds. I think we can build better connections between the brain and the behavior by studying often the exceptions to the typical or to the normal.
Can you talk about a time where you greatly challenged?
I find that the visual systems of birds, in the brain, very difficult to study because we don’t have the full set up or the imaging techniques that allow us to study live behaving birds while they are looking at things. It is much easier to study auditory neuroscience in birds because you can put the bird in an MRI machine and put on them some headphones and play specific songs and see how their brain lights up. You can’t really do that with the visual system so I find the neuroscience of avian vision still very challenging.
What do you do in your spare time?
I try to travel. I visit home, I visit my adapted homes which was New Zealand for a long time. I just became a US citizen and I’ve been to every state in the US so I’m proud of that. I like to eat diverse foods from different origins and go to nice places that provide that.
For instance, I love Ethiopian food so I love going to Chicago. I used to live in New York, and so having move here is definitely a big change but I find metropolitan Chicago to be very exciting. I really think it is an advantage for us to be near such a vast city.
What’s a fact about you that people don’t expect to learn?
I don’t know. […] I’ve jumped out of a plane twice on purpose. I’ve been skydiving.
If someone in the program, a student or a colleague, needed to refer to you but did not know your name, how would you prefer for them to describe you?
You could perhaps talk about the Bird Brain Person or the Bird Song Person or the Cowbird Guy something like that. I think I would be happy with any of those.