For Those Who Follow Us

A distinguished ornithologist reflects on her life, climate change, and her optimism for the future.

Venture Productions

Ellen Ketterson thinks a lot about change. As an ornithologist and biologist, she’s spent her career studying the evolution, ecology, and migratory habits of birds. She’s one of the most preeminent scholars in her field, and indeed one of the foremost experts in the entire world when it comes to certain birds in specific, most notably the dark-eyed junco. Change is the only constant in life, and the study of change has been the basis of Ketterson’s whole career.

But not all of the changes that Ketterson studies are naturally occurring. If you ask her, Ketterson can tell you in detail about a myriad of ecological and environmental changes that she’s witnessed right here in Indiana.

Ketterson should know; she’s lived in southern Indiana for more than 50 years. She earned all of three of her degrees from IU — a bachelor’s and a master’s degree in Plant Sciences, followed by a Ph.D. in Biology — and since 1977 she’s been a faculty member in the College of Arts and Science’s Department of Biology.

Ketterson also serves as the founding director of the College’s Environmental Resilience Institute (ERI), which itself is an outgrowth of the university’s Grand Challenges Program. The ERI’s mission is to provide the people of Indiana with predictions about the nature of environmental change, how it will affect our state, and how communities can address those coming changes with anticipatory solutions.

In a world of rising sea levels and shrinking resources, the ERI’s work is crucially important. Its work that affects lives not only in the here and now, but in the future, as well. Change may be the only constant in life, but not every change is inevitable. Just ask Ellen Ketterson.

Show transcript
00:00 --> 00:04
[Ambient music begins playing.]

00:18 --> 00:21
Ellen Ketterson: So, my brother is 11 years older than I am,

00:21 --> 00:24
and, when I was three or four,

00:26 --> 00:30
he was a boy scout, and he was earning a badge on bird identification.

00:30 --> 00:33
He decided it would be fun to have me learn the names of birds.

00:34 --> 00:36
So, I could identify birds before I could read.

00:39 --> 00:46
I definitely attribute my lifelong interest in birds to my early experience with my brother.

00:47 --> 00:50
My name is Ellen Ketterson, and I'm a bird biologist.

00:51 --> 00:54
And, in fact, I've been studying birds for 50 years.

00:55 --> 00:57
[Ambient music continues to play.]

01:06 --> 01:09
Ellen Ketterson: We have to be careful at this stage, because I think she --

01:09 --> 01:14
-- Yeah, she was biting the net, and sometimes they can get a tongue caught, so we have to be really careful.

01:15 --> 01:19
Ellen Ketterson: I was taught how to study birds by people who knew how to treat them gently,

01:20 --> 01:24
and how to uncover their secrets. And I try to pass that along,

01:25 --> 01:32
with those same commitments to objectivity and rigor and expanded view of what our responsibilities are.

01:33 --> 01:37
Ketterson speaking to others: The reason we can know that is that they grow these wing feathers

01:37 --> 01:39
and coverts while still in the nest.

01:39 --> 01:42
Ketterson speaking to interviewers: Birds and people -- vertebrate animals,

01:42 --> 01:46
everything alive, really -- comes from common descent.

01:46 --> 01:54
The similarities I see in humans and birds evokes in me this desire to keep them safe.

01:55 --> 01:59
It's like a sense of family, in that I feel a sense of relatedness.

02:00 --> 02:07
And, just as I do with my family, I want to use whatever skills or talents I have to keep them safe.

02:08 --> 02:12
I feel the same way about birds. I have this feeling of having made a contribute to

2:13 --> 02:18
how things were so that we can understand and appreciate the rate at which they're changing.

02:19 --> 02:25
The Environmental Resilience Institute is an outgrowth of the Grand Challenges initiative.

02:25 --> 02:30
And our mission is to provide the people of the state of Indiana with predictions

02:31 --> 02:34
about the nature of environmental change,

02:34 --> 02:38
what's coming, and what they can expect, so they can be prepared for it.

02:39 --> 02:47
I am dedicated to the proposition that the world can be a better place for those who follow us,

02:48 --> 02:52
if we give the time that's allotted to us to making it that way.

02:53 --> 03:00
Human beings have the capacity to be quite resilient and have shown over millennia that

03:00 --> 03:05
we're good problem solvers, but we're the best kind of problem solvers when we work together.

03:06 --> 03:10
[Ambient music rises, then fades away.]

Venture Production Group

This film was produced by Venture Production Group. Andrew Lee (B.A. ’06, Telecommunications) serves as executive producer for the company, and Ryan Newman  (B.A. ’07, Telecommunications) serves as creative director.