Grad student from North Huntingdon sets off for Galapagos research program

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Grad student from North Huntingdon sets off for Galapagos research program

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Originally published in TribLive

At 26, Amy Owens is the same age as Charles Darwin when he voyaged to the Galapagos Islands. And this summer, she will travel there with 11 other Miami University students.

The North Huntingdon native's journey is one of several she has taken through her master's degree program. The Global Field Program, part of the university's Project Dragonfly, sent Owens to Belize in the summer of 2015 and Namibia last summer.

“It's a new kind of adventure,” Owens said. “It gives you a really unique insight into the habitat itself.”

At home, Owens works as an assistant wildlife educator at Humane Animal Rescue in Pittsburgh. Most of her world, she said, revolves around animals.

“I've loved animals all my life. Even as a kid, I always wanted stuffed animals and not baby dolls,” she said.

Owens set off Tuesday for Santa Cruz Island, where she and the other students will stay two weeks to work with the nonprofit organization Ecology Project International. Their research will focus mostly on endemic species, which are unique to one location, she said.

The study of endemic species can reveal a lot about evolution, Owens said. The finches Darwin observed in the Galapagos Islands during his 1835 visit displayed a wide variety of beak types despite the small size of their home.

“I'm excited to see in person the things that Darwin has written about,” Owens said.

Still, she admits she is a little anxious about the trip.

“I feel prepared,” she said, “but there is still that pinch of nervousness.”

Owens doesn't speak Spanish, the predominant language of the islands, and joked that the few years of German she took likely won't come in handy. She will, however, have in-country guides to help her.

She said focusing on research will help her nerves. Her work in the islands will be some of the last she does for the program.

In December, Owens will complete her master's degree in biology and plans to work in wildlife education. She hopes to raise awareness of conservation needs.

“When you think of conservation,” she said, “my brain goes to cheetahs and elephants and things that are very far away.”

But there are species in need of saving in people's backyards, she said.

Most of Owens' previous research was on apex predators. It's knowledge she hopes can help demystify animals we sometimes think of as fearsome, such as wolves and sharks.

“People don't like not being on top of the food chain,” she said. “What I'm trying to make people understand is that these animals aren't scary.”