Western Colorado University Provost, Jessica Young, is being honored with the Distinguished Science Alumni Award by her Alma Mater, Purdue University. According to the Purdue website, these awards are given to alumni whose work and achievements “have made a significant difference in our communities and lives.”
“I feel surprised and honored,” said Young upon hearing news of the award.
Young’s Western Experience
Though she said she is humbled to be chosen among all the other spectacular people and scientists from Purdue, Young attributes being chosen for the award to her role as the chief academic officer at Western, her work associated with the Gunnison Sage-Grouse, and her mentoring science students.
The Path to Gunnison
While earning her undergraduate degree, Young spent time working with faculty and students in the Sierra Nevada Mountains doing research on sage-grouse, a species of bird native to North America. At that time, the general understanding in the scientific community was that the sage-grouse across 11 states and in Canada were all the same species. When her professor received a tape recording of sage-grouse in the Gunnison Valley sounding a bit differently than the ones they were studying, Young decided to get to the bottom of it.
She and her mom packed up a VW Van and headed to Gunnison to see and hear for themselves.
“We recorded the sage-grouse [in Gunnison] and found they were quite different, not just in sounds, but in behavior and size and feather morphology,” said Young. “When I began my Ph.D. program at Purdue the next year, I started developing research hypotheses about how the grouse in Gunnison might have become different.”
While Young was earning her Ph.D. at Purdue, she also engaged undergraduates from Western in her research in the Gunnison Valley. An average day for the young scientist and her Western student volunteers was a wake-up call at 3:30 am and a trip to the mating grounds or leks to record and study the sage-grouse.
Western students also helped Young capture sage-grouse at night and radio-track females to nesting sites and brood-rearing grounds. All of the information and a team of scientists working on behavior, morphology, and genetics led to the species being recognized as a new species. Young and the team named the species the “Gunnison” Sage-Grouse after the region it was discovered in and after the community who would be responsible for their conservation.
“When I was at Purdue, it was wonderful to be surrounded by a group of science geeks that cared as much as I did about animal behavior and conservation biology, but graduate school was very hard work,” Young said. “I feel grateful that the science we put forward helped give voice to the needs of the Gunnison Sage-Grouse and its sagebrush habitat.”
Giving a Voice to Students
Now, Young gives a voice to the students at Western through her work as Provost. With a duty to ensure the integrity of Western’s academic programming and promote Western’s values, Young works to provide students with quality academic opportunities as a direct line to student success.
Congratulations, Provost Young, on your Distinguished Science Alumni Award!
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Author Credit: Kinlee Whitney
Photo Credit: Courtesy