Stonefish selected for National Science Foundation Fellowship
When Dereck Stonefish was a little boy, he had many “pets.” He cared for a small squirrel that fell from a tree and a baby raccoon that lost its mother to a car. He also took in injured birds when he saw them. He was told that he shouldn’t be handling the animals and definitely couldn’t keep them. But keeping them was never his intention. He just wanted to help them and let them go.
Now 32, that same love for animals and helping spirit is partly responsible for where Stonefish is today, a first-year doctoral student studying zoology at NDSU and the recipient of a prestigious National Science Foundation Graduate Research Fellowship. He is only the fourth graduate student from NDSU and fourth tribal college graduate in the U.S. to receive such a fellowship since 2006. It will provide $151,500 for research-related expenses for a three-year period from 2011-14.
Today, Stonefish catches and releases red-winged blackbirds and yellow-headed blackbirds as part of his research to understand their migratory ecology. He tracks the movements of the birds from their summer residence in North Dakota to their wintering grounds and then back to North Dakota by using geo-locators, which record sunlight levels that correlate to longitude and latitude coordinates.
He captures the birds during breeding season using a live decoy bird. He says the process is a lot like fishing. “Sometimes it’s a waiting game and can be very frustrating. It can take two weeks or it can take five minutes … some days they’re biting and others they’re not.”
After roughly a year, Stonefish recaptures the birds to retrieve the geolocators and data. So far, they have caught 15 out of 48 birds. “We hoped for at least 10. We are pretty happy about the return rates.”
“His project not only will provide major insights into the migratory ecology of these species, but the information also will be used to assess how impacts of global climate change may affect migration of these birds,” said Erin Gillam, assistant professor of biological sciences and Stonefish’s adviser at NDSU.
The research also will be valuable to farmers trying to protect their crops from blackbird damage. He has already presented at the National Sunflowers Association.
Just as important as the research itself, Stonefish hopes his achievements will inspire young people of Standing Rock Reservation, where he lived for 10 years, and show them that excelling in higher education is possible.
While he isn’t completely comfortable with the recognition the fellowship has brought, he endures it because he knows it is good for young Native American students to see. “I’m OK with this to reach as many students as I can. If I can reach just one other life, I have accomplished something.”