Kelly Proffitt. Reaserch wildlife biologist. Biology master's degree.
I traveled to Antarctica during the Weddell seal breeding season as part of a reserach project funded by the National Science Foundation. Kelly Proffitt

In Antarctica, researchers require extreme protection from the cold, as recorded temperatures are sometimes as low as minus 60 degrees Fahrenheit.

Tell me about your educational background.

"I earned my B.S. degree in biology from James Madison University. Then I enrolled in a master’s program at Towson, graduating in 2001 with an M.S. in biology. I received my Ph.D. from Montana State University in 2008 and completed a one-year postdoc in Yellowstone National Park studying the population dynamics of trumpeter swans."

Who impressed you most at Towson?

"Dr. Donald Forester, professor of biology and my primary adviser, definitely made a difference. He let me go out and learn, which sometimes meant making mistakes and having to figure things out on my own. He stressed the importance of critical thinking and independence in the field, and he instilled those values in me and others."

I understand you spent a lot of time with seals in Antarctica.

"I traveled to Antarctica five times during the Weddell seal breeding season—about three months per

Kelly Proffitt in Antarctica
Kelly in Antarctica during her dissertation research.

year—as part of a long-term National Science Foundation-funded research project. My dissertation research involved studying the relationship between sea-ice characteristics and the seals’ reproductive performance."

Does working with seals pose any risks?

"They’re large animals—averaging about 1,200 pounds—and they’re Antarctica’s top predators. But Weddell seals have no land-based predators, so they aren’t wary of humans. That enabled me to get fairly close without compromising my safety."

What are you doing now?

"I recently accepted a position in the Montana Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks as one of the state’s three research wildlife biologists. My research involves elk populations in the greater Yellowstone area—the herds comprise anywhere from a few hundred to 5,000 animals. Our elk are generally healthy, but sometimes they’re infected with brucellosis, a disease they can transmit to livestock. Cattle are big business in Montana, so it’s important to manage the disease in wildlife and minimize transmission risk. There’s no vaccine for brucellosis, so our options are limited. Right now I’m trying to discover how many elk carry it and to pinpoint areas of high risk."

Kelly Proffitt
Kelly tracks elk in Montana for the state’s Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks.

How do you survey elk populations in such a vast area?

"I spend about four days per week working on my computer in an office and one day in the field. The field-work part involves flights in a two-seat Super Cub airplane—just the pilot and me—tracking elk from the air. Some of the animals have been fitted with surveillance radio collars that enable me to monitor their whereabouts. (The collar emits a special signal when an elk has stopped moving, which usually means it’s dead.) The collars help me to track temporal distributions in elk populations and how these overlap with grazing and ranching lands."

What’s next?

"My research focus is large mammals and how climate, humans and disease affect populations. Right now elk disease is a top priority in Montana, but priorities could shift and I’d be reassigned. I’m not sure what my next assignment will be."

Bears, maybe?

"[laughs] Maybe."



Related links

Biology (M.S.)

Don Forester's Web page

Montana State Department of Fish, Wildlife and Parks

Antarctic Organisms and Ecosystems

McMurdo Station, Antarctica (Logistics hub of the U.S. Antarctic Program)



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