The art of birds and biology

Johanna Beam ’20 is interested in population genetics and scientific illustration, which has led her to pursue a biology and studio art double major at St. Olaf.

When St. Olaf College student Johanna Beam ’20 was 16, she saw a few birds on her grandparents’ porch. The intrigue and research those few birds sparked quickly became “a very fast spiral” into a personal and academic passion, with impressive results.

Beam was recently named the American Birding Association – Leica 2017 Young Birder of the Year and wrote an American Birding Association for Birding Book Review. The Colorado native, a talented artist and illustrator, has also had artwork commissioned by Colorado Field Ornithologists. She is interested in population genetics and scientific illustration, which has led her to pursue a biology and studio art double major.

“They’re two very different things, but if I love drawing birds, and I love the science behind birds, it fits pretty well,” she says.

According to Johanna Beam ’20, the St. Olaf campus is a pretty good place for birding. This pileated woodpecker was photographed by Evan Pak ’19 near the Hilleboe and Kittelsby residence halls.

Beam always knew she wanted to be in a STEM field. But the art major was more of a surprise.

“I didn’t actually want to be an art major — I didn’t think I wanted to do art like that,” she says. But the department quickly won her over when she took Foundations of 2D Art with Professor John Saurer.  

“He’s amazing,” Beam says. “That class is so energetic and more than just ‘Oh, you’re going to draw something today.’ It’s just a really, really good intro class.”

Her birding passion has since taken her across the country, whether she’s looking for puffins in Maine or owls in Arizona. During spring break, it’ll take her across the world when she participates in an international bird race in Israel called Champions of the Flyway. Beam and two friends will try to find as many birds as possible in the 24-hour time limit, while being sponsored by Leica Sport Optics and the American Birding Association to raise money for bird conservation in Serbia and Croatia. But as much as the birds, she appreciates the people she has encountered.

Evan Pak ’19 photographed this sparrow by the bird feeder right outside Christiansen Hall of Music.

“When you think of birdwatchers or birders, you think ‘Oh it’s a bunch of old people going and looking around.’ There’s actually a lot of young people. There are young birder camps, where you go places and meet them. I’ve met my best friends through birding.”

According to Beam, the St. Olaf campus is a pretty good place for birding — especially the Natural Lands during spring migration. A recent Star Tribune story even highlighted how the 350 acres of Natural Lands play an important role in conservation efforts for native species like the bluebird.

“There’s a birder debate about whether Carleton has a better birding campus than St. Olaf. I tend to think St. Olaf does, but I’m biased,” she says.

Right now, Beam is considering pursuing a Ph.D. in some kind of bird research, but hopes to take side jobs illustrating field guides, convention art, logos, or T-shirt designs.

“I want to continue to combine birds and arts and science together, because that’s what I really love,” she says.