For Andrew Kovalick, studying at Wilkes is a walk in the park — and a family tradition.
Junior Andrew Kovalick already has three years of research experience on his resume and plenty of knowledge about his subjects. They have wildly different personalities. Some are outgoing; others are timid. The one thing they have in common is that they’re all squirrelly. More accurately, they’re all squirrels.
Kovalick, a biology major, works on a research team headed by Professor Michael Steele. Steele, a recent recipient of one of the U.S. National Science Foundation’s most prestigious grants, specializes in evolutionary biology and plant-animal interactions.
The team traps and tags squirrels, placing them in clear “personality boxes” to gauge the level of risk the rodents are willing to take when storing food. “I love animals, so it’s perfect for me,” says Kovalick, a commuter student from Dallas, Pennsylvania.
The research has international impact. Steele is currently collaborating with colleagues from California and Poland on a grant awarded from the National Science Foundation of Poland. Kovalick and several other Wilkes students study how the squirrels’ individual behavioral types affect seed dispersal.
It also contributes to a related project that examines how squirrels’ attempts to keep food from being pilfered impacts oak forests in Pennsylvania, Virginia and Missouri. Another project, in conjunction with a genomics group in Denmark, studies blood samples to learn how genetics and microbes vary in squirrels.
Steele invites students to volunteer for research their freshman year, giving them more responsibility if they stick with the team. “Research teaches students problem-solving skills. It teaches them how to do science,” says Steele. “It’s a whole extra positive added to the undergraduate education.”
Even on the tough days when box traps are empty or squirrels get loose in the lab, Kovalick learns a lot. “If something goes wrong, don’t give up. Keep battling through. Overcome it. It will work out in the end.”
That perseverance will serve Kovalick well when he moves on to medical school, following in the footsteps of his brother and parents, who are all Wilkes alumni.