Descendants of Kent Island: an Interview with Iris Levin and Toshi Tsunekage

Kent Island group photo, Summer 2003

Sitting in what used to be Bob Maucks office, Iris Levin has the same severe ponytail and outgoing demeanor as her photograph from the summer of 2003. The photograph was taken on Kent Island, where Iris spent the summer before her junior year at Bowdoin studying savannah sparrows. Surrounding her are three other familiar faces on Kenyon’s campus: fellow ornathalostist Bob Mauck, recently hired chemistry faculty Katie Mauck, and Toshi Tsunekage. The Toshi reclining in the chair next to Iris has changed more obviously since the photo was taken. He wears glasses now, his hair is cropped closer to his head, and his face has lengthened somewhat since he was a senior at Skidmore. 

Seventeen years since they met on Kent Island as undergraduates, Iris Levin and Toshi Tsunekage are the new biology faculty at Kenyon. Their offices are side by side on the third floor of Higley, and they are partners in research and in life. Iris will be replacing Bob Mauck as a professor of animal behavior, continuing the line of Kenyon professors whose beginnings can be traced back to a small research station off the coast of Canada. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Iris and Toshi about their journey to Kenyon, and their plans moving forward, including future research in Mongolia, China and Northern Japan.

Miriam Hyman: What drew you to Kenyon?

Iris Levin:  One of the reasons we moved here is to be at a place that is a little more research active. That was something very important to me in particular, and it was very evident that was happening. 

MH: What do you mean by research active?

IL: Well, the job of a professor is to be a teacher scholar, but the way one’s time is spent depends on the institution. Here, I have a lower teaching load so I can do more research, and there’s a greater culture around research. That was something that drew me to Kenyon for sure. And then all the barn swallows. That was really an added bonus. The metropolitan Atlanta area was challenging because the birds need open spaces. The southeast is pretty forested. You have to travel  before you get to farmland. But here, I mean, you can smell it. Really pungently. 

Toshi Tsunekage: We’re happy to be here. This is a really great department. 

MH: You talked about how you came here wanting to do more research. On your website, you mentioned you fell in love with research during your summers on Kent Island. Can you talk more about that experience? 

IL: This is a cute story! I went to Bowdoin college, and Toshi went to Skidmore. My professor was Toshi’s professor’s professor. And they had an NSF grant to do research together involving Bowdoin and Skidmore students. The year Toshi and I were up there, Bob Mauck was the interim director of the station. The year I went back he was the director of the station. So, I spent two summers on this small island with Bob Mauck. We also got to know Bob’s daughter Katie. She was there for several weeks that first summer, but then that second summer when I was up there and Toshi wasn’t, she was the cook. So, I got to know Katie very well. I mean, she was 16 then, and now she’s my colleague in Chemistry. We arrived at the same time, all three of us, who were three of maybe 10 students on the island.

MH: This is wild.

IL: It’s like, frightening. I mean, really a small world. I’m Bob Mauck 2.0 and I just can’t believe that some days. 

MH: So you met Bob Mauck, Katie Mauck and Toshi Tsunekage all for the first time on Kent Island? 

IL: Yeah, that first summer there were seven female undergrads and one male student, Toshi.

TT: This is also when reality TV shows were becoming a thing in the US.

IL: So, this was like survivor for Toshi and The Bachelor for me, I guess? But yeah, that’s how we met. We were both on the same project studying savannah sparrows, and it was great. We spent ten weeks up there on this island with no plumbing. You only had a solar shower, and it was usually like 30 days of fog, so you can imagine that this was not really the place where you’d expect to find your mate. But ever since then Toshi and I have been working together. Our PhDs were in different labs so we have different expertise, but we have enough overlap that I’m borrowing heavily from Toshi’s work and inspiration, which means we can offer more projects for students. I completely lack patience and Toshi has it in spades so we have different approaches in the field, but we work it out. 

MH: As collaborators, what do each of you bring to your research?

IL: Toshi’s the idea generator. 

TT: I’m kind of ADD with ideas, I think.

IL: You have a lot of them, which is really nice. When you’re a faculty member at a Liberal Arts institution, you’re a small department. Often there’s little overlap between faculty so that you can cover the whole breadth of the field. There’s a tendency to feel a little more isolated because you don’t have colleagues working in the same area. I’m really lucky to have a partner who does have quite a bit of overlap. Toshi is always thinking of great ideas

TT: They’re not always practical.

IL: But you know, when I get stuck on something, I have a colleague.  We had four students last summer, and I wouldn’t have been able to manage it on my own – you wouldn’t have been able to manage on your own. 

TT: And when we’re on private property, it’s not just birds around, but-

IL: Children! Lots of children.

TT: There are people that need attending to. It’s good that we can split stuff up like that.

IL: We’re definitely better because we’re a team. 

MH: What questions do you think drive your research?

IL: Recently we’ve been working on social behavior and trying to understand what structures social networks. Is it phenotype of an individual? Does that feedback on physiology? How does phenotype affect physiology and how does physiology organize behavior? It’s very circular. But I just got an NSF grant to do a whole heck of a lot more than social behavior. We’re going to take a new tool that measures social networks and deploy them in barn swallow hybrid zones in Asia. We’re going to be trying to understand all aspects of behavioral reproductive isolation. Why subspecies interbreeding? Are they paying attention to looks? Do social interactions predict their mating behavior? These are pretty major questions in behavioral ecology. So that’s going to be 5-6 years with Kenyon students in China, Mongolia and Northern Japan. 

MH: Woah, so this will be something for students to look forward to.

IL: Oh yeah, this is going to start working on the project as early as next fall or next summer. Data collection will be in Ohio first. There will be some sampling in China but not by Kenyon students just yet. First we need permission and permits. Even here it’s a lot of work, a lot of cultivating relationships and communicating: Can we be here at 5 in the morning? Can we move your horse? Can we work around the pigs? All of these questions you never thought you’d be dealing with when you’re trying to do research. 

MH: What are you looking at for the time span of your project in Mongolia?

IL: We hope to have 2-4 students this summer but we may not be travelling internationally. The next 3-4 summers, you bet, we’ll have students in the field. I’ve planned for 2 students per summer for international travel. We will be writing more supplemental grant requests so we can have more. You need really big teams of people. I’ve had this dream of getting students involved in different capacities. There’s got to be a way to make this more interdisciplinary, because some of the things that we need done in the field on swallows don’t require a ton of biological training, so we’ll see… that’s a pipe dream of mine. 

MH: With your collaboration as scientists and as partners living on this campus, how do you separate work time from not work time?

IL: We don’t really. Maybe I should let you answer that first.

TT: It’s not that separate, I mean we ride our bikes a lot.

IL: These country roads… We’ve spooked a couple Amish horses, but we ride all over the counties. People are like, ‘oh my god you’re gonna die!’ , but we don’t ride on roads that people drive fast on. We try to have a life outside of work, but I’m really bad at separating the two… my work is my life and my life is my work. This is exactly what I want to be doing. I wake up in the middle of the night thinking about work and it’s not work. I mean, someone pays me to do this? How is this possible? It just doesn’t feel like a 9-5 grind. I find students a joy to be around. We’ve always enjoyed being engaged on campus, going to students’ performances and sporting events, so being a part of a campus community hasn’t gotten old yet. 

TT: I feel like it’s a pretty rewarding job. It doesn’t feel like you need a break. I don’t go home feeling like “I’m just ready to be home”. There are some people who are like, we do spend so much time together, way more than most couples because we work together, I mean, without a doubt. My office is right there **knocks on wall**.

IL: Right, he makes me coffee, which is fantastic. It’s a good arrangement. But yeah, We really like each-other, and that makes a big difference. But we definitely have friends who are like ‘how could you guys work together and be together?’. And I don’t know how I couldn’t. I definitely bring my work home because it’s just constantly going on. I don’t think I could be married to someone who wasn’t a biologist – I think I’d drive them nuts. It’s just such a part of who I am.

TT: Let’s not test that hypothesis. 

MH: You mentioned loving to be engaged on campus. What things are you most looking forward to getting involved in? 

IL: Keeping up with emails about what’s happening is stressing me out to be completely honest. But I really enjoy seeing students do things beyond sitting in class, especially once I have relationships with them. You all are very multidimensional and I enjoy getting to experience that; having someone say ‘Hey, I’m in acapella, there’s a concert, please come.” I enjoy that aspect of students’ lives and the Kenyon community generally. And there will be days when this is going to feel like a very small town, when we’re like, ‘ugh, it’s Saturday, I really don’t want to see anybody’. But it hasn’t happened yet. We’re really happy here – and it’s the barn swallow center of the universe! 

this interview was edited for clarity and length

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