Schuylkill Speaks: Senior Dominique Varra discovers enthusiasm for ornithology

Dominique Varra stands with a gray catbird perched on her hand. The image has a text overlay reading "Schuylkill Speaks."

Dominique Varra

Credit: Kim Mousseau

Editor's note: This story is part of a series profiling exceptional members of Penn State Schuylkill’s spring 2020 graduating class.

SCHUYLKILL HAVEN, Pa. — Few undergraduate students present as much research as Dominique Varra, a senior biology student at Penn State Schuylkill.

When Varra began her degree, she became close with the campus’s gray catbird research group. Luke Redmond, assistant professor of biology and Varra’s adviser, said, “I first met Dom early in her time at Penn State Schuylkill when she took a class with me in spring 2017. This would be the first of many classes that she would take with me, and we began doing research shortly thereafter — something that continues to this day.”

Together, the team capture the songbirds, affix special colored bands to their legs for future identification, take blood samples, and release the birds to observe them over time. Varra took this research one step further by introducing faux predators, such as squirrels and snakes, to the catbirds’ nests. Once the catbirds spot the faux predator, she tracked their reactions and how they defend their nests.

The team’s work builds on a larger body of research related to the gray catbird, and Varra has presented her findings at numerous conferences. She and others have traveled to Alaska for an American Ornithological Society meeting as well as Cape May for the Association of Field Ornithologists and Wilson Ornithological Society joint conference. Her work has even earned her the campus’s Sustainability in Research Award at the fall 2018 Student Research and Scholarship Conference.

For Redmond, it has been a joy watching Varra grow scholastically. “At first, she was a little quiet, maybe a little shy, and not sure of herself. It has been very fulfilling to watch her grow into a confident scientist who has presented her work in front of some of the top researchers in our field,” he said. “Congratulations on a job well done, Dom.”

All of Varra’s work has contributed to an impressive undergraduate career, which is important for a student setting an example for watchful eyes. Varra is mother to five-year-old Hayden, who is in awe of all her mom has accomplished. In fact, Varra has become a role model in that Hayden is now inspired to, in her words, “study molecules” when she grows up. For now, though, Hayden is happy doing her favorite activities — riding her bike; playing make-believe; and hiking, birding, and fossil hunting with her mom.

A woman poses for a photo with small her daughter, who is wearing a bold sunflower print.

Dominique Varra inspires her five-year-old daughter Hayden through her research and commitment to achieving her dreams. Together, they enjoy hiking, birding, and fossil hunting.

Credit: Dominique Varra

Even when she is outside of the classroom, Varra conducts research. She spends her free time banding owls as a volunteer at Hidden Valley, located in western Schuylkill County, and also acting as an environmental advocate.

On Saturday, May 9, Varra will transition from an undergraduate researcher to a college graduate. Penn State Schuylkill has helped this adult learner shape her idea of what she wants for her future, and before she leaves, she reflects on her time at the campus.

Q: What surprised you most about your time here?

Varra: My college experience was very different from what I expected. I enrolled my freshman year thinking I would be studying and specializing in plants. By the end of that year, I was starting my research on birds and now hope to continue my education in that field. It’s very interesting to see how things can be different from what you expect!

Q: What class or instructor had the most impact, and why?

Varra: There have been many instructors that have influenced me over the years — especially the biology professors. However, Luke Redmond, my adviser, introduced me to the field of ornithology, which has become my passion. Over the years, he has presented me with countless opportunities and challenges to push me toward my goal, and I couldn’t be more grateful for that.

Q: What’s your favorite spot on campus?

Varra: My favorite spot on campus was the tutoring center, where I spent many hours. This spot was perfect because not only did it have many resources and tools for studying, but it was also a comfortable environment. There were comfy couches, tea and essentials oils, making it easy to de-stress while studying.

Q: What is your favorite Penn State Schuylkill memory?

Varra: This past year, a few students, my adviser and myself journeyed to Cape May to present at a bird conference. This experience was a great opportunity for me to network within my field and present my current research. Not only was this experience centered around my passion for birds, but I was also able to share it with some of my closest friends.

Q: As a Penn State Schuylkill grad, what advice would you give to an incoming student?

Varra: The best advice that I could give is to simply talk to your professors and peers and establish relationships with them. Making connections is really important during your college career because they can last a lifetime.