The James San Jacinto Mountains Reserve has a new director in biologist Jennifer Gee. Since graduate school, Gee’s work has taken her from the green forests of Massachusetts to the deserts of northern Mexico, and the flasks and chemicals of the laboratory to the wilds of the Galapagos Islands. Now she plans to apply her years of field experience to help classes and scientists visiting Black Mountain in Southern California.
Gee first encountered the Natural Reserve System as a Princeton University graduate student. She came west to study hybridization patterns between two closely related bird species, Gambel’s quail (Callipepla gambelii) and California quail (Callipepla californica). She found both bird species in abundance at the NRS’s Boyd Deep Canyon Desert Research Center, which became the site of her thesis work. Spending roughly five months of the year over five years in the Coachella Valley desert and the Santa Rosa Mountains, Gee says, “I fell in love with that place and those birds.”
After graduation, she took a position as a postdoctoral fellow at Cornell University, then Harvard University. She focused her research on a species of Darwin’s finches called the warbler finch, comparing it with a relative called the bananaquit. Additional fieldwork in the Galapagos and Barbados allowed her to study beak development. Gee also conducted experiments with the Java finch at Harvard’s Concord Field Station.
“It was a fascinating detour which reshaped my view of evolution, but I was bothered by persistent questions that I had left unanswered about the origin of quail and how each of the Callipeplaquail species had formed. My graduate field work had made me feel like I was just getting a handle on that system,” Gee says.
She resumed her quail work with collaborator Jennifer Calkins. To raise money for their research, the scientists used a quintessentially modern approach: social media. They designed a series of donor gifts ranging from quail trading cards to T-shirts, and pitched their project on Kickstarter.com, an online fundraising platform. Their efforts raised almost $5,000. The money enabled Gee and Calkins to travel to Mexico and for Gee to investigate yet another hybridization frontier, this time between Gambel’s and elegant quail (Callipepla douglasii).
During this period, Gee served as interim manager of the Bernard Field Station, adjacent to and owned by the Claremont Colleges. The position allowed her to relaunch her quail project, and gave her experience managing a field station.
There, Gee experienced an epiphany. “Directing a field station felt like my calling in life,” Gee says. When former James Reserve director Becca Fenwick departed to become director of the NRS’s Yosemite Field Station, Gee leaped at the chance to apply for the position.
"Jennifer brings a wealth of academic and practical experience to the NRS," says Allan Muth, director of the NRS's Boyd Deep Canyon Reserve. "She is a seasoned field biologist with laboratory credentials and she understands the integration of field and lab science. In addition, she has management experience at a field station that will enable her to comfortably assume her responsibilities at the James Reserve."
Gee couldn't be happier to entwine her fate with that of the James Reserve. “The James Reserve turned out to be the chance of a lifetime. It is just a few kilometers from a place and community that I unwittingly made my home and clearly knew somehow I had to go back to. It’s such a happy ending and true beginning.”
Quail Hybridization in Mexico, Scientist At Work series, New York Times