2007-2011, B.S. Biology, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA
2011-2013, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Slater Museum of Natural History
2013-present, Ph.D. Organismal Biology and Ecology, University of Montana
2016, Interim Curator, Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum (UMZM)
Check out my personal webpage at RobertNiese.com
I am a Ph.D. candidate at the University of Montana studying non-vocal acoustic communication in birds with Dr. Bret Tobalske in the Flight Laboratory. These intriguing behaviors have puzzled naturalists for centuries and yet only in the last decade have we begun to understand how and why they are made. Using high speed video and novel audio recording techniques I am linking locomotion to feather-sound production in pigeons and doves, while elucidating the mechanisms and morphologies responsible for these remarkable feather functions. Locomotion-induced sounds are ubiquitous in nature and are intrinsically informative. This has interesting implications for the evolution of communication broadly, and alters the way we think about acoustic interactions throughout the natural world.
Check out my most recent publication, Specialized primary feathers produce tonal sounds during flight in rock pigeons (Columba livia), in the Journal of Experimental Biology.
My natural history training began at a very young age thanks to my unusually passionate curiosity for birds. I have since taught mammalogy at an upper-division college level, and have taught laboratory classes in ornithology, botany, and general biodiversity. I can name nearly 300 species of birds by sound alone, can ID most Pacific Northwest plants and macrolichens by sight, and can recognize most terrestrial and marine invertebrates. I am particularly adept at identifying mammal skulls and hair and have been a consultant with Montana Fish Wildlife and Parks in forensic poaching investigations. While I claim to have “Mastered” Pacific Northwest natural history, I strongly believe that no education in natural history is ever truly complete. I am constantly learning more about fungi, geology, bryophytes, and insects, and I hope to never cease this endeavor. Furthermore, I love fostering similar passions for discovery in those naturalists-in-training with whom I interact in the field, in classrooms, and online. My philosophy, both as an educator and as a Master Naturalist, is to foster a deeper appreciation for biodiversity and the world around us through experiential, hands-on learning. I rely on my enthusiasm and mastery of these topics to engender genuine, curiosity-driven inquiry which develops more meaningful and enduring comprehension in students at all ages and levels of education.
In addition to my work as a grad student, curator, and my overly passionate hobby as a natural historian, I am also dedicated to science education at all levels of instruction. Through my work as an education and outreach coordinator for the Slater Museum of Natural History and as an Americorps-sponsored volunteer science educator, I witnessed first-hand how a fun and engaging science lesson can change the attitudes and and perspectives of young students. Not only do these STEM-based curricula make students better prepared to tackle an ever-changing national job market, but they can also improve student’s critical thinking abilities, promote genuinely curious inquiry, and reinvigorate a student’s desire to be in school and continue learning. The hands-on, specimen based curricula that I helped design and implement at the Slater Museum of Natural History have reached tens of thousands of students in hundreds of schools throughout the Pacific Northwest, earning the museum an Audubon Society award for distinguished community service.
My work in small natural history collections has provided me with a unique and modern curatorial philosophy. I believe that small regional collections, which are often unfunded and endangered by neglect and obscurity, can become invaluable teaching resources for local communities. As a curator, educator, and docent at these small, underappreciated natural history museums, I learned the value of community engagement in order to preserve and promote the utility of such collections, and I continue to strive to engage our communities both within academia and beyond. By creating a valued role for these small museums in the local community, we can ensure that its natural history treasures remain available to scientists for generations to come.
To learn more about the Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum or to volunteer to help maintain and develop the collection, visit our webpage here. If you’d like to schedule a class visit to the UMZM or a free science lesson at your own school in Missoula, feel free to contact me!
To find more information about the Slater Museum of Natural History’s free educational curricula in the Tacoma, WA area, check out their webpage here.