It may not seem likely, but a direct line can be drawn between Laurel Ridge Community College and the safety of the nation’s aviation industry. The link between the two is Carla Dove, research scientist/program manager for the Smithsonian Institution’s Feather Identification Lab at The National Museum of Natural History.
Dove, whose name also reveals her calling, is an ornithologist, or bird specialist. She describes her work as being kind of like “CSI for birds.” As program manager for the museum’s Feather Identification Lab, she identifies the types of birds that have struck military and civilian airplanes, otherwise known as “bird strikes.” The data that Dove collects provide information about bird behavior – such as habitats and migration patterns – to aviation officials so bird strikes can be avoided. Wildlife strikes on aircraft cost the military an average of $44 million a year, and the costs for civil aviation are even higher at $600 million a year, she said. But without Laurel Ridge, she might have entered another line of work.
Dove, who graduated from Laurel Ridge in 1983 with an associate degree in applied science and natural resources management, transferred to Laurel Ridge from Blue Ridge Community College specifically for Laurel Ridge’s natural resources program. Still, she was unsure about her future subject area focus within the discipline. That is, until she met Rob Simpson, associate professor of natural resources management at Laurel Ridge’s Middletown Campus.
“He was the one instructor that really did give me the motivation to go on and continue my education,” she said of Simpson, who she considers to be the first of her three primary career mentors. She fondly remembers getting field experience at least three days a week in Simpson’s classes. He also introduced her to what would become her passion. “He just really excited me [about] birds. … And I never looked back,” she said.
Today, the first-generation college student is part of a five-person team that handles more than 10,000 bird-strike cases every year at a museum she visited with Simpson as part of a Laurel Ridge field trip. “He really did open my eyes as to what museums are all about,” she said. Prior to the trip, she didn’t know a behind-the-scenes research component existed. Now she works in that very arena.
An elected fellow of the American Ornithological Society, Dove recently appeared in the Smithsonian Channel film “Bird vs. Plane: Miracle on the Hudson,” the story of the plane that was landed on the Hudson River by Capt. Chesley Sullenberger after birds struck its engines. All on board survived.
Aside from providing her with new experiences and a career path, Laurel Ridge also allowed Dove to grow more independent without moving far away from her family. Dove said starting off at a community college was the best thing she could have done in her educational career.
Dove, who earned her bachelor’s degree from the University of Montana and her master’s degree and Ph.D. from George Mason University, said she really appreciated the personal attention she received at Laurel Ridge. “I’m very happy that I had that opportunity” to attend the College, Dove said.
Laurel Ridge Community College was known as Lord Fairfax Community College until June 2022. For consistency purposes, the college will be referenced as Laurel Ridge going forward.