Penguin expert finalist for Indianapolis Prize

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INDIANAPOLIS (WTHR) - Dee Boersma is from Michigan. The penguins who live there live only in zoos, but that did not stop her from becoming one of the best-known penguin experts in the world.

The University of Washington professor directs the "Center for Penguins as Ocean Sentinels" and works with the International Union for the Conservation of Nature, specializing in penguins. Her interest in penguins did not start at a young age. When she was in graduate school, she was looking for a subject for her dissertation -- something that she thought would hold her attention for a while. "And, Galapagos penguins, I thought, were bizarre", she said, "What are they doing living on the equator? I mean, that's a crazy place for a penguin to live. And so that's why I chose Galapagos penguins." The breed has now held her attention for more than thirty five years and she has transferred that enthusiasm to her students, like Jeff Smith, who says: "She is very high energy. She brings herself fully into whatever it is she's working on, which almost 100% of the time is penguins stuff and/or students."

In that time, climate change has challenged beloved penguins -- and so has man. She has fought to keep companies from "harvesting" the animals near Punta Tombo, Argentina -- and helped pass laws to get oil tankers to move further away from the shore to preserve breeding grounds. Killing the penguins for their oils, pelts, and feathers would have created less than a dozen jobs -- but the area now attracts more than 100,000 tourists a year, and created thousands of local jobs.

Perhaps her most well-known characterization of penguins is summed up in one sentence: "Penguins are really ocean sentinels and they tell us a lot about the environment, whether it's the terrestrial environment of the marine environment." To that end, Dee Boersma helped put together a collaboration called "Penguin Sentinels" with fellow scientists and students. According to her group's website: Penguin Sentinels works to understand what penguins are telling us, protect their environment, and inspire others to take action in preserving our natural world." The group does that through education and in Dee Boersma, it has an energetic and enthusiastic leader. University of Washington colleague Daniel Schindler says: "It's unclear where Dee gets her enthusiasm from. It's just a fact of life. She's remarkably enthusiastic and restless. You know, Dee is never sitting still, always asking how she can make a difference, do new things, try new strategies to accomplishing her broader goals."

Boersma shrugs off the praise by making the point that when trying to make the case against damaging climate change -- penguins are an easy sell. "Most people have an affinity for penguins"' she said, "I mean, I don't think it's any surprise that the biggest grossing documentary in all of history is March of the Penguins"."

She's over 70-years-old now, but has no plans to slow down. Besides her full teaching schedule at the University of Washington, she spends at least 3 months a year in the field. Finding enough energy for field work is never a problem: "I want to check those nests", she says, "Then I know what's really going on. I want to see it. Seeing is believing for me -- and those penguins give the energy back because I want to go see them."

Her work is extraordinary, and because of her accomplishments, Dee Boersma has been made a finalist for the Indianapolis Prize for a second time this year. She could win an unrestricted $250,000 award to help in the work of preserving penguins and the environments in which they live. It is arguably the most lucrative conservation award in the world today.

The Zoo will award the Indianapolis Prize on September 29.

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