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My name is Hannah Moon. I’m a third year PhD student in Dr. Megan Porter's lab at the University of Hawai'i at Manoa. I study the visual ecology of Hawai'i's endangered and threatened seabirds, such as the critically endangered Newell’s Shearwater. I didn’t grow up wanting to be a scientist. I grew up loving birds and art. As a woman who found her passion for science after college, it was scary trying to find my way across the gap between art and science. I went to college two years early, and because I was very young and lacked exposure to science, I thought there was no way I could make a living studying birds. I chose my love of art and majored in black and white documentary photography. I loved how everything from filters and lenses to the chemicals used in developing film and prints changed the light in the final picture. Understanding and mastering photographic processes allowed me to explore how others perceived their world and tell their stories. After graduating and getting a day job, because of my love for birds, I was gifted with what turned out to be a very rare and endangered parrot. She inspired me to learn more about birds in the wild and what it takes to conserve an endangered species. I spent the next two years living abroad and working on parrot conservation projects. We helped grow and plant native trees, collected rare seeds, and eradicated invasive species like pigs and cats. I fell in love with the motivation and passion necessary for science and conservation work. Unfortunately, I was also exposed to the less positive aspects of conservation during those years, such as a lack of knowledgeable leadership and the inequalities and exploitation that come with having to fund yourself because it’s your “passion” (art and science have a lot in common that way). My experiences left me with big questions like “What even is effective conservation, and how can I be part of it?”

I spent the next three years simultaneously chasing every academic, community service, and employment opportunity available to gain experience in biology so I could contribute to conservation in a positive way. My questions took me out to Hawaiʻi, specifically the island of Kauaʻi, where I worked for a few years with the Kauai Endangered Seabird Recovery Project. I had fallen in love with seabirds while volunteering as a naturalist on a whale watching boat in the Stellwagen Bank Marine Sanctuary and am one of the fortunate few who’s study species is also one of their favorite animals. On Kauaʻi, I studied the impacts of human infrastructure and outdoor lighting on endangered seabird populations. However, the more time I spent picking up birds hit by cars and watching adult birds crash into powerlines, the more interested in their visual systems I became. We kept trying to leverage seabird visual systems to conserve them by changing light and lighting up powerlines, but we didn’t know much at all about their eyes. My time as a photographer had taught me how small differences in a lens or film could completely change the quality of the light or clarity of a final picture. Birds have fundamentally different eyes than humans- what did these lights and powerlines look like to seabirds, and how could we use that information to effectively conserve them?

I joined Dr. Megan Porter’s vision and molecular lab at the University of Hawaiʻi 2 ½ years ago to study the visual ecology of seabirds. I study the physiological and molecular drivers of vision. My goal is to understand how ecology shapes differences in visual sensitivities between seabird species so we can more effectively target conservation and mitigation efforts. Using classic physiological techniques such as electrophysiology and microspectrophotometry, I quantify how seabird eyes filter and detect light. Molecular techniques allow me to investigate how genes expressed in the eye vary across a wide variety of species. I even get to use my photography skills from my past life to explore the light environments of Hawaiʻi’s seabirds. My graduate studies reflect the importance of collaboration within and beyond the scientific community. I work closely with Dr. Esteban Fernandez-Juricic’s lab at Purdue to blend all the data I am collecting into visual models we can use to understand how birds perceive man-made threats. Much of my work is only possible because of collaborations with native wildlife rescue centers in Hawaiʻi. They deal directly with the seabird light attraction issues and conservation implications of my research and I would be nowhere without them. Science does not happen in a vacuum, and in a world where technology progresses rapidly and funding groups want results even faster, collaboration is key to success as a scientist.

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Brightfield microscopy photo of the oil droplets in the retina of a bird. The oil droplets filter the wavelengths of light a visual pigment can detect in the retina. These aren’t in human eyes. I think oil droplets are just incredibly beautiful.

Past highlights

Hannah Moon