Back, who will receive a degree in biology and anthropology during commencement exercises at Linfield on May 27, earned a Fulbright Award and will study fur seals in Melbourne, Australia, next year. She has been accepted to a master's program at Deakin University and will investigate the behavioral responses of Australian fur seals to boat-based disturbances at a breeding colony on Kanowna Island, off the coast of southeastern Australia.
The seals are a sub-species of the South African fur seal, which was hunted to near extinction in the 1700s and 1800s and is currently listed as vulnerable to extinction. Most of the remaining 70,000 Australian fur seals live and breed in the Bass Strait between southeastern Australia and Tasmania, where Back will be studying. Back's work will contribute to the development of appropriate tourism protocols and overall conservation of the species.
"Fur seals give birth and raise pups on land, but mothers have to feed at sea," she explained. "This makes the time they can spend together in the colony nursing and bonding very important. Fur seals are shy, so disturbances from boats and tourists can reduce the amount of time mother seals are in the colony and have serious impacts on pup survival."
The research opportunity is a natural extension of Back's interest in wildlife conservation. Growing up in the Columbia River Gorge, Back spent much of her childhood in the outdoors exploring the neighboring rivers and forests. She caught her first sturgeon at age 9, and in high school she worked at the Cascade Fish Hatchery, aiding in the population recovery of Coho salmon in the Columbia River. Later, she served as a park ranger aide at Viento State Park.
"Since I was able to walk, my parents had us out in the woods hiking," she said. "I was addicted to field biology long before I went to college."
At Linfield, Back naturally gravitated to the biology department but found time for study abroad as well. As a sophomore, she traveled to Ireland for January Term. She spent last Spring Semester in the Galapagos Islands studying at the Galapagos Academic Institute for the Arts and Sciences at the Universidad San Francisco de Quito. It was there she became enamored of seals.
Back, who became fluent in Spanish during the semester, lived with a host family and spent nearly all her free time volunteering at the island's one and only veterinary hospital. One facet of her work involved seal rescues, and she was immediately drawn to their intelligence and curiosity.
"I'd never been up close and personal with a seal before Galapagos," said Back, who became an avid snorkeler and SCUBA diver. "I'd go swimming and suddenly be surrounded by a whole group of pups, just wanting to play."
Back said she's looking forward to the hands-on research experience and the opportunity to work with marine biology experts such as John Arnould, her Australian mentor, and the chance to expand her cultural communication skills.
"I hope to encourage dialogue on conservation between U.S. and Australian citizens, and use what I've learned in the classroom and lab to really contribute to the protection of such an amazing species," she said.
Back is a Ford Family Foundation Scholar and a first generation college student. She is also a Linfield College Trustee Scholar, a member of Alpha Lambda Delta honor society and a member of the Sigma Kappa Phi sorority. She co-chaired the Sexual Assault Prevention Task Force and is a peer educator with the Consent Awareness Training Squad (CATS).
After completing her Fulbright and master's degree in Australia, Back plans to pursue a doctorate in marine mammal biology and conservation. She hopes to teach at the university level, and plans to model her instruction after many of her Linfield professors.
"The value of a Linfield education is the bond I've been able to develop with my professors," she said. "They've inspired me and been incredibly supportive throughout my time here. Our professors don't just lecture, they encourage us to have intellectual discussions both inside and outside of the classroom."
Fifteen Linfield College graduating seniors have won Fulbright awards since 1999. The grants are designed to fund study, research and teaching in other countries to promote a greater understanding of different cultures and nationalities.