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Alixandra Prybyla CC’18 overlooking the Wisła River and Wawel Castle in Krakow, Poland. Photo: Courtesy Alixandra Prybyla CC’18

Finding Weasels at Wawel Castle

“I returned from my time in Poland with a profound sense of peace in having found a balance between my scientific pursuits and my love of the humanities.” — Alixandra Prybyla CC’18

In the summer of 2015, Alixandra Prybyla CC’18 split her time between  doing research at the American Museum of Natural History, thanks to grants from the Columbia College Alumni and Parent Internship Fund and the Work Exemption Program, and studying Polish in Krakow with the support of the Harvey Krueger Global Experience Fellowship, established in 2014 to encourage College students to engage in study abroad or independent research projects in either Israel or Poland. Here, Alixandra reflects on her experience exploring her interests, and her unexpected discovery of the overlap between seemingly disparate interests.


When asked to imagine a carnivore, wolves, lions, and bears trundle into our cultural consciences. On the other hand, mustelids — otters, badgers, weasels, ferrets and other similar carnivores — live, as Annie Dillard so aptly observed in her essay Living Like Weasels, “with a fierce and pointed will” somewhere deeper in humanity’s penumbric perception of wildness. They enter our vernacular (weasel their way in, one might say), feature in our childhood songs (“Pop Goes the Weasel”) and embody our society’s love for the antihero (X-Men’s Wolverine).

If someone had asked me a few months ago what my plans for the summer were, I never would have guessed that my general paleontological studies outside of Columbia would bring me to a specialization in mustelids. Nor could I have known that my unrelated foray into the study of the Polish language would have me analyzing mustelids, as well as myself in their weasel-faced inscrutability.

Last year was my first year at Columbia College, and I savored it and was awed by the Core and everything I learned I didn’t know; it was the Core that disclosed to me that I could exist outside of the tidy boxes where the American school system places its students. My determination to cultivate all aspects of myself — my humanities proclivities, my passion for ecological science and environmental biology — fueled my decision to pursue a summer of both linguistic and scientific self-exploration.

As a continuation of my research work at the American Museum of Natural History (AMNH) during the spring 2015 semester, I maintained my scientific momentum thanks to grants from the Columbia College Alumni and Parent Internship Fund and the Work Exemption Program. I broke up my research at the museum by voyaging to Jagiellonian University in Krakow, Poland, where I spent three weeks studying Polish language, culture and history — a project I proposed in order to satisfy my interest in my family’s history. This revitalizing break from lab work was possible thanks to the support of the Harvey Krueger Global Experience Fellowship, established in 2014 to encourage College students to engage in study abroad or independent research projects in either Israel or Poland.

A sampling of handmade pierogi offered during the 12th annual Pierogi Festival in Krakow, Poland. Photo: Alixandra Prybyla CC’18 A sampling of handmade pierogi offered during the 12th annual Pierogi Festival in Krakow, Poland. Photo: Alixandra Prybyla CC’18 My summer began with ten weeks of research in the Department of Vertebrate Paleontology at AMNH, which spans three floors: the preparation lab and two levels of individual research offices. Zhijie Jack Tseng, an AMNH postdoctoral fellow, had first welcomed me into his research in January 2015 with an enthusiasm that I gladly caught. Together with John Flynn, Frick Curator of Fossil Mammals in the AMNH Division of Paleontology and principal investigator in the AMNH Sackler Institute for Comparative Genomics Lab, I was mentored in the subtle ways of the paleomammalogist.

Our research focused on Finite Element Analysis (a long process that begins with a computed tomography (CT) scan and ends in a complex series of three-dimensional models). These models, computerized versions of real skulls taken from museum collections and scanned in-situ, allowed me to analyze how skulls and teeth physically change when a critter bites down. You would expect an ancient deer to have different strains on its skeletal structure than a saber-toothed cat, for example.

While I was working on the lab’s National Science Foundation-funded carnivore project — in which our team produced more than 40 3D models of carnivores from around the world — I had the opportunity to do a little digging myself. Not only did I have the pleasure of assigning a specimen from Leptarctus (that’s a fancy name for an extinct wolverine-like critter) to a species, but I also jumped into the ring of a 20-year-old argument previously unresolved in paleomammalogy: Are Hyposparia bozemanensis (another ancient mustelid) and Leptarctus primus (that’s my contender) really just two names for the same critter?

With my exploration still under way, I intend to bring a fresh perspective to the discussion when I continue my research at AMNH in Fall 2015, and hope that with the new methods I have learned under the tutelage of my mentors, this could be the start to a very proud career. My mentors and I are hoping that, once I collect more viable data throughout the coming semester, I will leave my sophomore year with a publication or two under my belt.

After ten weeks at AMNH, I took a hiatus from my lab work and boarded a plane to Poland to immerse myself in Polish language studies in Krakow. I left New York sure that there was nothing harder than biophysical analyses.

Alixandra Prybyla CC’18 hiking through Tatra National Park on the border of Poland and Slovakia during a Jagiellonian University weekend trip. Photo: Courtesy Alixandra Prybyla CC’18 Alixandra Prybyla CC’18 hiking through Tatra National Park on the border of Poland and Slovakia during a Jagiellonian University weekend trip. Photo: Courtesy Alixandra Prybyla CC’18

I was wrong: I had never before spoken a Slavic language. The Core — and Columbia as an educational mecca — teaches its students to question, question, question, but also to observe and absorb. As the immensity of my undertaking to learn a new language (something I hadn’t tried since ninth grade!) sunk in, I began to wonder how my leap into Poland’s rich and spiritual culture related to the mustelid research I would return to as I began my sophomore year. The two areas of my interests seemed, at least topically, divergent.

Unexpectedly, it was a visit to Krakow’s Wawel Castle that helped me see that my interests, though seemingly disparate, were in fact more connected than I had realized. Wawel Castle rears its noble spires like an old, tired warhorse. Copper roofing peeps up from behind leafy scruff, the castle’s walls bearded with ivy. It looks warm and tired in the afternoon sun, like a symbol of resilience, as it has been for the people of Krakow for so many years.

As I walked along the tourist-smoothed stone of the castle’s grounds one evening, I noticed, draped across a slattern window, an advertisement for Leonardo da Vinci’s “Lady with an Ermine,” an invitation to view the painted masterpiece on display just walls away. Taken aback, I realized that this was the unifier I had been looking for. An ermine: a mustelid.

I suddenly understood that traveling to Poland to learn Polish (the language of my grandparents, and their parents before them) was important to my paleontological research because, as I cultivate my understanding of the world and of myself, the study of different topics will allow me to ask better questions, participate in a more profound marriage of cultures and grow a more inquisitive mind. Is it not the questions you ask, and the creativity which allows you to form them, that make a good researcher? Certainly the questions born from an intense, intensely satisfying language-learning course indirectly will allow me to grow as I continue my mustelid analyses.

I returned from my time in Poland with a profound sense of peace in having found a balance between my scientific pursuits and my love of the humanities. Coming back to my research (a postcard version of the painting now propped against my computer monitors in my workspace at AMNH) I feel a new aspect added to my exploration: these creatures hold an important cultural niche as well as an ecological one. This overlap brings me much joy, as it is the one I try to balance in my own academic quests. Thanks to the foundation of my Columbia Core education, my generous sponsors and the mustelid with its gentle lessons, my journeys throughout the summer after my first year at the College will stay with me as I move into the next three years of my time at Columbia, and on into greater depths of my research.


Alixandra Prybyla CC'18 is double majoring in Environmental Biology and English. She hails from Cleveland, Ohio, where her love of the natural world was cultivated in the forests of the Cuyahoga Valley National Park, and she serves as the president of the Columbia University Environmental Biology Society.

Last updated Monday May 22, 2017

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