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Back to Cool Careers in Science
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Photo of David J. Anderson Meet David J. Anderson.

He's an ecologist with an ornithological bent. David's interest in masked boobies has him winging to the Galapagos Islands to band birds. How cool is that?!
Question Why did you decide to become an ecologist specializing in birds?
Answer I like solving problems, and science provides a logical way of solving real-life problems. So becoming a scientist was no great surprise, I guess. Becoming a bird ecologist was just luck! I had the chance to be a field assistant for a scientist working in the Galapagos Islands, and while I was there, I saw a particular problem in behavioral biology that I wanted to solve and, in the process, made myself into a bird ecologist.
Question What educational background do you need to become an ecologist?
Answer You need at least a bachelor's degree in biology, with the chemistry, physics and mathematics training that goes along with that. Many ecologists have masters and Ph.D. degrees also, and those degrees are necessary for some kinds of ecologist positions, like university professorships.
Question What do you do during a typical day at work?
Answer Photo of David Anderson and Masked BoobyI work in two places. When I am in the field at my group's Galapagos study site, I have a long day. We study seabirds called masked boobies there, and we have put numbered leg bands on several thousand birds so that we can recognize them from year to year. Every year, I keep track of which of our boobies are still alive by doing a census at night, when most birds are sleeping at their nests in a big colony. I walk around with a head lamp and read the band numbers while the birds sleep, and I write the band numbers in notebooks. This can take all night, every night, for about two weeks. During the day, I work with the other people in the research group, students and such, helping out with their own projects. I don't get a lot of sleep in the field! I don't mind, though, because the research is exciting to me and I like my job.

When I am back in my office, I spend time teaching biology classes at Wake Forest University in North Carolina, writing grant proposals to support all of this field research, analyzing data and writing papers to make our results public. I also try to make sure that schoolkids hear about science and how scientists do their jobs, like with something called The Albatross Project (, which lets classes participate in our research on seabirds.
Question What do you enjoy most about your work? Is there anything about it you don't like?
Answer There are two things I enjoy most about my work. First, I get to work with interesting and enthusiastic people who are also fired up about science. Second, every once in a while I have moments in which I suddenly understand the solution to a problem that I've been working on -- those are great moments.
Question If I'm a student thinking about becoming an ecologist, what can I do now to prepare?
Answer Read a lot, and not just about science. Successful ecologists are successful in part because they have prepared their minds to attack scientific problems using a variety of intellectual tools. Take mathematics courses seriously. Ask questions about why nature is like it is, and try to get the answer yourself before asking someone else for an answer. When deciding on which college to attend, ask about opportunities to participate in research while you're a college student. See if you can arrange to have a short visit with an ecologist at a college or university near your home. Ecologists are among the friendliest people anywhere, and they would be glad to talk with someone interested in their field.
Question Is there anything else you'd like to let Frontiers viewers know about yourself or your career?
Answer I'd like to emphasize that science isn't about guys in white lab coats with big vocabularies. It's about curious people asking questions about nature and finding the answers by collecting data. Kids can be scientists themselves. For example, they can get their classroom involved in using satellites to study seabirds by checking out the Albatross Project website (

If you would like to know more about David Anderson, you can read a brief biography. You can also read his answers to questions that were asked during the Destination: Galapagos Islands Cyber Field Trip (December 6-13, 1998).


Scientific American Frontiers
Fall 1990 to Spring 2000
Sponsored by GTE Corporation,
now a part of Verizon Communications Inc.