CLARKSVILLE, Tenn. – Everything was quiet that January afternoon in rural Virginia. It was too cold for the screeching of insects, and the farm was far enough away from major roads for the sounds of traffic to bother the three researchers.
But as the men approached the tall, conically shaped feed storage bins, they heard a faint hissing. Something was alive inside. Christopher O’Bryan, an Austin Peay State University biology student, climbed a ladder to the top of the 27-foot high structure and peaked through a trapdoor. That’s where he saw the adult and three young barn owls roosting.
The sighting was the first regional record of winter nesting for that bird. Photos were taken to mark the occasion, and notes jotted down in tattered field guides. Five years later, O’Bryan’s findings were published as the lead article in the Virginia Society of Ornithology’s science publication, “The Raven.”
“I found it back in 2005, and it just now got published,” O’Bryan said. “I was very glad it finally came out while I was still an undergrad.”
It is an unusual feat for an undergraduate student to author the lead article in a scholarly publication, but O’Bryan isn’t a typical science student. He’s literally conducted field research for more than a decade, dating all the way back to his days as a middle school student in east Tennessee.
“I started basically professional research when I was 12,” he said. “I worked with the Knoxville Zoo in conjunction with the Tennessee Nature Conservancy - working with an endangered species of turtle called the bog turtle. Since then I have just worked my way up the ladder.”
When it came time to attend college, O’Bryan decided to go to APSU because of the opportunities offered by the school’s Center of Excellence for Field Biology. He arrived early that summer as a freshman and got to work right away working with Dr. Floyd Scott, professor of biology at APSU.
“Since then, I’ve worked on projects from alligator snapping turtles to frogs and salamanders,” he said. “I’ve done a lot with the Center.”
Last year, O’Bryan applied to work as a research technician with the Pacific Southwest Research Station of the U.S. Forest Service. The highly coveted internship would allow college students to work in the Yosemite National Park, studying Yosemite toads. O’Bryan was awarded one of only four spots on the team, beating out more than 200 other applicants nationwide.
“It’s definitely an honor to get that job,” he said. “And I definitely wouldn’t have been one of the people picked if I didn’t work for the Center these last three years. I got great experience that put me over the edge.”
O’Bryan spent the summer hiking and backcountry camping through Yosemite National Park, the Sierra National Forest and the Stanislaus National Forest.
“I learned a lot of sampling techniques I can bring back here,” he said. “It’s kind of full circle. I was trained here at the Center, I learned a lot, and I took that somewhere else and learned a lot and am able to bring that back. It’s a perfect circle with benefits on both sides.”
O’Bryan, a senior, is finishing up an impressive academic career at APSU. He was awarded a $3,000 Presidential Research Scholarship to study the emerging infectious diseases of amphibians, and he was recently awarded a Tennessee Herpetological Society grant to continue this work.
After he graduates, he plans to go straight into a Ph.D. program at Arizona State University to study herpetology in the tropic regions.
“It’s pretty exciting,” he said. “And the Center is a great resource for students.”