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Intelligence officer finds research is for the birds

  • Published
  • By Master Sgt. Timm Huffman
  • Headquarters RIO
For many, an Antarctic cruise to spend time with penguins is just a dream. For Capt. Hila Levy, it’s all in a day’s work.

Levy is an Air Force Reserve Individual Mobilization Augmentee intelligence officer at the Joint Reserve Intelligence Support Element, Royal Air Force Molesworth, United Kingdom. She is also a leader in the field of penguin genetics and spends up to four months each year studying the species in the Antarctic.

Her journey to bottom-of-the-Earth research began after earning a Rhodes scholarship to complete her master’s program at Oxford University following her 2008 graduation from the Air Force Academy. While at Oxford, Levy was pursuing two master’s degrees, one in historical research and the other in integrative bioscience. The latter course of study led her into the field of penguin genetics.

She was interested in using her thesis research opportunity to apply genetics techniques with an interesting species. What started as a joke (“a Puerto Rican in Antarctica”), turned into a fully funded penguin research project. It wasn’t easy getting started, though. Levy said she had to fight to set up her project and break into the field of conservation genetics.

“I got a lot of push back and heard a lot of ‘No, you can’t do that,’ but eventually got permits, training, funding and logistics in place for a big project in the Falklands in 2010,” she said.

The trip was successful and that success turned Levy into a leader in the penguin field. She finished her first round of research and her thesis defense in 2010, which she presented at the International Penguin Conference in September of that year.

“[That] made us realize that there was a lot of potential left to explore with the techniques we had developed and applied,” she said.

Unfortunately for the field of penguin research, Levy would have to step back. With her master’s program complete, it was time to head into the operational Air Force; something that had been deferred due to her acceptance as a Rhodes scholar. She left her work in the hands of her supervisor, Dr. Tom Hart, and colleague, Gemma Clucas.

Intelligence wasn’t an early first choice career field; she was originally slated to either be a doctor or pilot. However, as Levy met other service members during her graduate school studies, she began to see the value of intelligence and how she could contribute directly to the decision-making process. She was also attracted by the opportunity to gain early-career management experience and to apply her language skills -- she is fluent in Spanish, English, French, and Hebrew. So she made the decision to pursue the career field and headed off to intelligence school at Goodfellow Air Force Base, Texas, and active duty.

Levy’s commitment was up in 2014 and she was ready to return to Oxford to pursue her doctorate of philosophy in zoology. She wasn’t ready to give up her commission, though, so she transitioned into the Individual Reserve. This move would allow her to pursue her educational goals while continuing to serve her country.

The Individual Reserve is made up of more than 7,000 IMAs and Participating Individual Ready Reservists (PIRR) who are assigned to support active-duty units and government agencies around the globe. The IR program is managed by Headquarters Individual Reservist Readiness and Integration Organization.

As an IMA, she took on the division chief of training position at her new Reserve unit at RAF Molesworth. In that role she is responsible for ensuring the training of a cadre of primarily Army and Navy Reserve intelligence troops at two of the seven geographically separated locations under JRISE.

Levy has found that switching to the Reserve has given her many benefits she didn’t experience as an active-duty intelligence officer. She said that in the Reserve she doesn’t have to move around as much, which allows her to focus on one area of expertise for a longer period of time; something that’s rare in the intelligence world. Along with that, Levy said that the IMA program gave her more control over applying for assignments. The flexibility incumbent in the IMA program, the ability to schedule her 36 days of annual commitment around her life is a bonus that works well for her, especially in light of her heavy work load as a doctoral student and penguin researcher.

At Oxford, Levy found the penguin research lab she helped set up still going strong and she has resumed her research. That research is important, she said, because penguins are sentinel species, which helps scientists grasp what is going on in the ecosystem around them. The birds help them understand the health of the marine environment in and around Antarctica, providing a measure of how krill and fish species they eat are doing and also providing another insight on the changing sea ice and climate conditions.

To do all this, Levy has to make regular trips to the Antarctic, including the continent itself. Travel to the region is restricted to the warmer months surrounding the Antarctic summer, approximately October-March, when the sea ice clears and there is enough daylight to navigate. For her early fieldwork, before their cruise ship days, Levy and her team relied on the Royal Air Force to transport them in and out of the research sites on helicopters and they worked out of RAF Mount Pleasant in the Falkland Islands.

Since then, the scientists have worked out an arrangement with an Antarctic tourism company that allows them to travel onboard their cruise ships in return for lectures to their passengers.

Once Levy and her fellow researches reach the bottom of the world, they try to squeeze in as much research as possible during the limited time they have available. They sometimes have as little as 30 minutes ashore, though they often have much longer, even staying overnight on the ice at times. Once in place, the scientists collect stool samples, perform census counts, record audio of bird calls, and take photographs of unusual findings that might indicate a mortality event or poor breeding success.

A unique aspect of the work her team does is the year-round time lapse cameras they have in place at more than 70 sites across the region. The cameras monitor the colonies throughout the year and the team has to download the photos and replace batteries from time to time.

The Oxford researcher spends time looking at a wide variety of penguin species, including Emperors, Kings and Adelies. This year, she was fortunate to see two leucistic, or partial albino, penguins. This rare genetic condition affects only about one in every 114,000 penguins and results in a penguin that is a light golden-brown color. Of all the species, Levy is partial to the Gentoo variety because she enjoys their personality and that they are highly adaptable to the environment -- living under trees in southern Argentina, in grassy areas alongside sheep in the Falklands, and on the ice in Antarctica.

Levy occasionally receives a request from an acquaintance to bring back one of the cute and cuddly looking birds. This always surprises her, however, as the animals are actually quite smelly and create a lot of waste, “which they shoot out in a process scientifically known as projectile defecation.”

“It’s not fun to be on the business end of that!” she added.

In addition to the penguins, another thing Levy enjoys about visiting the Antarctic is what she calls “the drama of ice.”

“There are so many different kinds of ice, in terms of shape, texture, thickness, color, and how it is affected by the temperature or light on a given day,” she said. “Hearing the sound of a calving glacier isn't always exactly great news on the climate change front, but it really makes you feel small, as a human, in such a harsh environment.”

In many ways, the work Levy does researching penguins is like the work she does as an intelligence officer for the Air Force, she said: both fields require asking the right questions, collecting the right type of information, understanding the limitations of the work, and then publishing and presenting the findings in a way that decision makers can understand and use in making policy.

Many of the questions Levy and her team try to answer focus on the effects of climate change and how it affects penguin populations in different regions and across species. For example, they have noted that species like Gentoo penguins are seemingly able to adapt to warming conditions in their environments and expand their ranges, while very ice- and krill-dependent species, like Adelie penguins, are declining. Levy said there are many other unanswered questions down the food chain that will affect penguins, seals, whales, and other predators in the years to come.

According to Levy, penguins make good ambassadors for such heavy issues. Because the birds are charismatic and beloved around the world, they help put the issues of climate change, pollution and overfishing into context for the public. This, in turn, helps her team communicate their findings and gain actionable support.

Ultimately, Levy said she hopes her research will result in concrete data that will help guide and improve fishery policy in the region.

“My work on penguin disease has the potential to indicate whether human activities and warming temperatures are having a more negative impact than predicted,” she said. “While our work on population genetics and population trends has shown that some species are at greater risk than others and merit stricter limits on where and how much krill and fish is taken from their habitats in the Southern Ocean.”

To learn more about the IMA program, including how to find an assignment as an IMA, visit