Indianapolis native Jasmine Barney, ’16, has spent the summer netting bats, checking artificial roosts and padding an already impressive biologist’s resume.
Jasmine Barney knew what she was getting into when she agreed to assist at Indiana State University’s Center for Bat Research, Outreach and Conservation with an ongoing mitigation project at the Indianapolis International Airport.
Being the only African-American female technician on the field research team isn’t something the Indianapolis native thinks about when she is knee-deep in a creek catching bats.
What’s on her mind out in the field, Barney said, is the job at hand and her fear of frogs that even a field biology class with Professor Joy O’Keefe just can’t shake.
“I really don’t like frogs and if I’m walking down a creek in the middle of the night and there’s a frog, I’m sure to have a freak out,” Barney said. “I live close to a state park so I know nature, but the animals we encounter out here are not afraid of people so when the deer and coyotes peer at you from the forest, I’ve learned that you just have to shine a light at them and they’ll go away.”
It’s one of the many tricks of the trade she has learned as a technician for university’s bat center, which has been involved for more than a decade in research at a mitigation site for Indiana bats near the airport.
Indiana bats and their habitat have been protected near the airport since the 1990s. The Indianapolis Airport Authority, U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and other agencies signed a Habitat Conservation Plan in 2002, and bat center workers began providing annual monitoring and studying of the roosting and foraging ecology of Indiana bats on airport mitigation lands.
Since graduating in May with a bachelor’s degree in biology, Barney and four other technicians are conducting research alongside a master’s degree student in the bat center, working six days a week, often at night, tracking and netting bats, checking artificial roosts and recording their findings from natural areas near Plainfield. Barney will wrap up research in August.
As a student of O’Keefe’s, Barney said she was prepared for the work ahead but said being out in the field has provided experiences unlike any textbook she’s ever read.
“I knew what to expect when I was going into the field research, but actually getting to wade through creeks at night with a flashlight to check a net has been a new experience,” she said. “Not everyone has the mindset to deal with angry bats chewing on their gloves and screeching at them or sometimes we’ll get other things, like owls, stuck in our nets and have to deal with them. Every day is definitely different, though, and there’s a lot to learn from getting to do this.”
That includes adjusting to a field of work where women, particularly African-American women, are few.
Women, in general, often lack good role models in science, which tends to be predominantly white and male-oriented. But Barney has found a mentor in O’Keefe, assistant professor of biology and director of the university’s bat center.
“For Jasmine, it’s a double whammy to be out in the field, because she is not only female but also a minority,” O’Keefe said. “It’s hard to get into a field if you can’t see yourself in it because no one looks like you, so I have tried to encourage her along. She also grew up in Indianapolis and having grown up in the city, too, I know it can be challenging to get into field biology so I want to help her stick with it.”
As one of the first minority female students to do research with the bat center, Barney is defying the stereotype that African-American students shy away from wildlife and field biology work.
“At conferences it’s noticeable that I’m the only black girl, but people think it’s great that I’m doing this,” Barney said. “Normally, being the only African-American female in the field isn’t something I notice or think much about, except when I’m the one tracking bats at night. When people see me out in the dark at 1 a.m. (holding an antenna) most people will stop and ask me what I’m doing and I’m really the only one who gets stopped like that.”
The National Science Foundation found that minority women comprise fewer than 1 in 10 employed scientists and engineers.
Of Indiana State’s 1,879 undergraduate and graduate students enrolled in science, technology, engineering and math fields during the fall of 2013, a little more than 17 percent of the student body — or 331 students — and 24 faculty members in those fields were minorities, according to Indiana State’s Office of Institutional Research.
The numbers of Sycamores who pursue field biology are limited, but O’Keefe said students, like Barney, can gain a lot of valuable experience through Indiana State.
“My goal is to engage students earlier in their careers and when Jasmine showed me in my freshwater biology class that she had an aptitude for working with animals I hired her to do insect work,” O’Keefe said. “When Jasmine was in my class, we would go to streams and ponds in the area to do aquatic sampling. She was very interested in the work and turned in lot of insects, which is hard to do, so we hired her to identify insects for a research project last fall.”
Barney was a student in O’Keefe’s freshwater biology class in 2014 and in her mammalogy class in fall 2015, after which O’Keefe hired Barney to help identify insect samples for a graduate student’s project.
As a senior at Indiana State, Barney took up a research post with O’Keefe analyzing data on bat body temperatures in the Smoky Mountains, which she used to create a research poster to summarize the findings and present at an Indiana Academy of Sciences’ meeting.
Looking for more opportunities, Barney revised the poster and data and presented at a Midwest Bat Working Group meeting held in Ohio. Now she’s traded in those conference rooms for living at the site where she is working on a job that changes from day to day.
“The experience has been mostly what I expected when I went into it, plus all of the little things I didn’t think about, like sending a bi-weekly report to the airport with our findings and all of the data entry that’s involved,” Barney said.
It’s all part of the learning experience for students in Indiana State’s field biology program, where students take a core set of biology classes plus focused electives in organismal biology, allowing them come out of the program with a strong background.
“Jasmine will definitely be qualified coming from our program, although we’ve talked about the possibility of her pursuing a master’s degree,” O’Keefe said.
When the airport field research ends in August, Barney’s keeping her options open for the opportunities she could pursue to continue on in field biology, from jobs on fish migration to tracking sage grouse in Wisconsin or monitoring bats in Kentucky caves.
“I’m willing to see what’s out there and know that sometimes you have to take your chances,” she said. “I did that when I got into this field by talking to professors and doing volunteer work. Sometimes you just have to ask around, be willing to try new things and find the right people that can help steer you in the right direction.”
That person for Barney has often been O’Keefe, who has encouraged her to network and continue to make contacts in the industry to keep moving forward in the field.
“This is true for Jasmine or any other student because they need to get out, get experience and apply for a lot of jobs in any place where there is opportunity,” O’Keefe said. “Jasmine is uniquely poised to become one of the few minority females in field biology. My goal is to make sure that she is qualified for such positions because of the valuable experiences she’s had at ISU. If she applies her drive and experiences she’s gained here, Jasmine will be well on her way to becoming a professional field biologist.”