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For Patricia DeCoursey, When It Comes to Biology, Timing Is Everything

Patricia DeCoursey


Her finalist year: 1950

Her finalist project: A breeding bird census of songbirds in a Long Island, N.Y. forest

What led to the project: Patricia (Jackson) DeCoursey was always interested in nature growing up. Her parents both had a strong conservationist bent. When she was a student at Hunter College High School in New York City, she decided to undertake a census of all the songbirds in a tract of hardwood forest on Long Island. She rode her bicycle to the census site and spent as much of her weekends as possible mapping the birds' locations by their calls. She entered her project in the 1950 Westinghouse Science Talent Search and was named a finalist. It was a big year for the Jackson family; her twin sister Cynthia (Jackson) Fisher was named a finalist, as well. (Cynthia's project concerned maze learning in ants).

The effect on her career: DeCoursey calls going to Washington, D.C., "a titanic wave in my life." The scholarship money she won helped her attend Cornell University, where she majored in zoology. As a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin–Madison, she discovered the field that would be her career-long focus: chronobiology.

Chronobiology or "biological timing" is the study of internal rhythms in living organisms. The best-known ones, DeCoursey says, are circadian or daily rhythms such as the sleep-wake rhythm, daily activity rhythms, or jet lag and shift-work maladies. She spent two years as a postdoc at the Max Planck Institute for Behavioral Physiology in Munich, Germany, then carried out research at Washington State University where her husband was a professor. In 1966 she and her husband moved to the biological sciences department at the University of South Carolina where she has been since.

Throughout this period, her research and writing has focused on the physiologic properties of rodent circadian clocks and the significance of internal timing in the ecology of wild rodents.

She studied this, in part, by disabling some of the rodents' internal clocks. In one experiment she discovered that chipmunks without an internal circadian clock appear quite normal—at first. They can survive in optimal conditions; during the first year after their internal clocks were disabled, "predation by weasels was minimal," she says. But then the chipmunk population increased strikingly due to two successive years of abundant acorn crops in the forest. The weasel population also increased, following the growth of the chipmunk population. Under these more crowded conditions, the restless nighttime movements of the arrhythmic chipmunks in their burrows clued the weasels in to their locations, and predation increased dramatically. The weasels killed all but four of the 100 chipmunks in this population.

What she's doing now: These days, DeCoursey has added a new project to her list: directing the restoration of the university's W. Gordon Belser Arboretum. Given to the university in 1959 without adequate maintenance funds, it became a vine-ridden junglelike place, with kudzu and other invasive species taking over the 10-acre plot. "We're turning the arboretum into an outdoor eco-lab," she says. She spends half her work time on the restoring the arboretum and organizing class visits, and the other half on her professorial duties. "It has been a great gift to be able to teach what I love best," she says.

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