Lecturer in the spotlight: Judy Shamoun-Baranes
'I love what I do, and that’s what I try to show'
Judy Shamoun-Baranes is lecturer in the interdisciplinary Bachelor’s programme Future Planet Studies, for which she also coordinates the first-year course ‘A future perspective for planet Earth’. She is also guest lecturer and thesis supervisor for the Biology Bachelor’s and Master’s programmes. In her research on bird migration and foraging behaviour she combines her knowledge as an ecologist with insights from Earth Sciences.
A fascination with birds
From childhood, Judy Shamoun-Baranes has been fascinated with birds. ‘Not that I walked around with a pair of binoculars around my neck from the age of five, ready to go bird watching at any time,’ she clarifies, ‘But I always found them very fascinating, even in books and films.’ Also from an early age, she became very aware of the human impact on the environment. ‘I grew up in the US in the 70s and I had some teachers at elementary school who were very active in the cause, so I got to form a lot of impressions early on.’
That she was able to turn her interests into a career, is due in part to the network she built up early on during her studies in Israel. ‘Israel is a fantastic place for research into bird migration. There, it quickly became clear to me that this was what I wanted to do, very specifically. From then on, it was just a matter of going after the right people.’
She eventually ended up in the Netherlands to pursue her doctoral research. ‘I had gained a number of contacts in the air force for a Master’s project. It just goes to show where these things can lead to: if you start to build up a network of people early on, it can provide so many possibilities you just can’t see at first.'
Making your own connections
To this day, having an extensive network comes in handy. In her research, Shamoun-Baranes needs knowledge of the birds themselves, but also of the environment, the weather and the landscape. ‘You can’t be a specialist in everything, so it is useful to know where you might be able to get that knowledge and which people you need to talk to.’
She likes the challenge of learning new things that way and sharing this knowledge with students. It literally broadens her outlook: ‘I always used to look up, at the sky, at the birds. And now, when we’re on an excursion, I can also tell students something about the ground we’re walking on. I tell them that I am not an earth scientist and that some questions are best put to other lecturers, but I do try to make my own connections: why is this interesting or important to me as an ecologist?’
A different kind of interaction
Excursions also provide a different kind of interaction with students. ‘Sometimes I might be explaining something to the group, you know, plenary, before we walk on to the next site. At these moments, going from A to B, you have entirely different conversations with students,’ she says. ‘What led you to pick this programme? What choices are you planning on making? What inspires you? Students feel much freer to talk about such things, because it’s not a quiz and there are no wrong answers: you’re just having a conversation.’
Passionate about work
‘I love what I do, and that’s what I try to show,’ Shamoun-Baranes responds when asked what she would really like to pass onto her students. She calls it a privilege to be part of the academic world – both for herself and for her students. ‘It might sound weird to say it so explicitly, but being passionate about what you do is an important factor. It’s hard work and you have to want to put every ounce of energy into it.’