Burger, Joanna

Professor II
Areas of Interest: 
Behavioral Ecology, Ecological risk, Human-Animal interaction, Social Behavior of Birds, Mercury and Lead, Fish Consumption and Risk.
My Story: 
I grew up on a vegetable farm in Niskayuna (Iroquois for corn fields) New York, where my first jobs as an 8 year old was scaring the Crows and Blackbirds from my fathers corn fields. As I grew older I rode a horse around the fields instead of walking, but I never tired of watching the foraging behavior of the mysterious flocks of birds. At a very early age my mother identified the wild flowers in the woods behind our house and my father showed me nests of Great Horned Owls and Killdeer. I took to bringing home injured birds, any snakes and salamanders I could find, and a range of frogs and toads. Some lived in my room, some lived in the downstairs, and some I kept in the wet cellar, but I loved them all.
Burger, Joanna
Joanna with a gull chick

As a teenager I searched the fields for Killdeer and Spotted Sandpiper nests. When I found a nest I marked the eggs and checked them each day until they hatched, recording the length of time it required. Once the chicks hatched, I marked them with a daub of color, and followed their paths around the farm, recording their movements each day on large pieces of surveyors tracing paper I borrowed from my indulgent grandfather. During this period my girlfriends convinced me to take dancing lessons once a week, but I ended up playing hooky and watching the birds instead.

Our family was unusual in Niskayuna. We had the only working farm in a community of professionals and corporate executives. The school decided that as a farm girl, I obviously was bound to be a secretary at best. Consequently, I had four years of office practice, three years of typing, three years of bookkeeping, and no college preparatory courses in high school. I occupied my time running the school store, skipping school from time to time to wander the neighborhood, watch birds, and explore and climb any new construction.

At the end of my junior year I announced I wanted to take biology even though I wasn’t going to college. “You’ll never pass,” said the wise guidance counselors, but I persisted.
I loved biology, especially genetics, and settled right in. Partway through the course my biology teacher, Miss Richards, came into class one day, said she had laryngitis and could not speak, and asked if I would teach the day’s genetics lecture. Reluctantly I started to give the lecture at the blackboard, and found that I loved it. In the middle of the class, the principal came in and sat in back, saying he’d planned on observing Miss Richards anyway, and he thought he’d stay. Since I was always in trouble with him anyway, I really didn’t care. Later in the day, I was called to the principal’s office over the PA system, and I went, trying to think just what I had done wrong in the last few days.

It was a set-up, the principal explained, when I went into his office. “Your biology teacher said that we had made an awful mistake and that you’d never be happy as a secretary. I told her if she could prove to me that I was wrong, we would get you into college.” I sat there dumb-founded. I felt I had no hope of going to college because of my courses. “So,” he continued, “we are going to get you into college, but first the English teacher will tutor you every day after school to get your writing up to college standards.” True to his word, they somehow got me into SUNY at Albany, and I was on my way, trying to pass college courses for which I’d had no high school preparation. 

Burger, Joanna
Joanna with a Laughing Gull

From my very first days in college, I loved biology and was intrigued by animal behavior. At the time, the only real professions open to women (or so I thought) was secretarial, nursing, and teaching. I majored in biology so that I could teach in high school. As I was finishing my senior year research project, another teacher (Meg Stewart) drove me to Cornell University to convince me that I should get a master’s degree. After obtaining a MS degree from Cornell, I taught in a small college for four years before deciding that I was going to go to graduate school in behavioral ecology. I wasn’t sure where it would take me, but I just wanted to learn. I had discovered a world of research into the wonderful world of animals and their interactions. I was fascinated. I went to the University of Minnesota to major in behavioral ecology, wanting only to learn more about why animals did what they did, and how their behavior allowed them to survive and reproduce. My PhD thesis was on the ecology of the marsh-nesting Franklin’s Gull.

As I was finishing graduate school, I saw an advertisement for an American Association of University Women (AAUW) fellowship to pursue post-doctoral research, and I applied. Over the objections of nearly all my graduate school professors, I proposed to conduct research on gulls that nested in pampas marshes of Argentina. It wasn’t suitable for a woman to go there alone, they said. But off I went to live in a mud gaucho hut in the middle of the pampas, 50 miles from any English-speaking people, and I knew no Spanish. I learned it, however, as I couldn’t possibly go for six months without talking to anyone. The gaucho family that lived on the ranch where I worked adopted me; Laura (one of the daughters) taught me Spanish as I taught her English, and it worked out quite well. The research was rewarding and successful and I gained confidence in my own resourcefulness. 

From there I came to Rutgers and have remained every since, traveling the world over to study the social behavior of gulls in many countries, Zebras and Wildebeests in Namibia, Impala in Kenya, Black Iguana in Costa Rica, butterflies in Brazil, Macaws in Peru, and Emperor Penguins in Antarctica. I learned early that using some of my own hard-earned money to fund my research at Rutgers was an investment in my own future, and this led directly to sufficient publications to launch me into the world of grants. Along the way I married Michael Gochfeld, an environmental physician who had a PhD in evolutionary biology, and we have continued to work on the behavior of vertebrates in many countries, and to write together.

I am only here because of the caring support of a number of teachers who saw in me something that I did not see in myself, and because they extended a hand to take me to the next level of education and experience. Both teachers who had such a profound effect on my life were women who provided role models and friendship when I most needed it. Because I grew up with no expectations for a career, once launched, I was free to fly wherever my imagination took me, and I have loved every minute of it.