2007-2011, B.S. Biology, University of Puget Sound, Tacoma, WA
2013-2019, Ph.D. Organismal Biology and Ecology, University of Montana
2011-2013, Education and Outreach Coordinator, Slater Museum of Natural History
2016, Interim Curator, Philip L. Wright Zoological Museum (UMZM)
2019-2020, Senior Instructor, CIEE Global Campus, Monteverde, Costa Rica
2021-2022, Visiting Assistant Professor, Pacific University, Forest Grove, OR
Check out my personal webpage at RobertNiese.com
I am a huge nature nut, outdoor enthusiast, and passionate educator. I’m a Master Naturalist for the Pacific Northwest ecoregion, a doctor of Organismal Biology and Ecology, professional photographer and author, and a big nerd. Below you’ll find some information about my research interests in ornithology and animal behavior, my background and objectives as a naturalist, my teaching philosophy in the natural sciences, and my experiences as a zoological museum curator.
In 2019, I received my doctorate from the University of Montana where I studied 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. In the process of investigating these non-vocal wing sounds and their associated feather morphologies, I also discovered and characterized a novel lift-producing feather shape found in over 60 species of pigeons and doves.
Check out my entire dissertation: Why the Weird Wings? or watch my 50 minute presentation summarizing the whole thing here.
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, introductory biology courses, and have taught laboratory classes in ornithology, botany, ecology, 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.
During the coronavirus pandemic in 2020, I was approached by Adventure Publications through my natural history blog, Northwest Naturalist, to write a book for kids about Pacific Northwest science and nature. Since I began Northwest Naturalist in 2014, I have dedicated countless hours to curating my collection of photos, nature facts, and identification tips and have accumulated over 6000 followers across Tumblr (its original home) and this webpage. Turning Northwest Naturalist into a book was never the goal of this digital nature journal, but I was thrilled to have the opportunity to put some of it into print! Over the course of 15 days in October of 2020, I wrote the entire first draft of the Backyard Science and Discovery Workbook: Pacific Northwest. The completed 146 page workbook finally went to print in July of 2021 and I could not be more proud of the work our team produced. You can purchase your own copy of my book here! I am eager to continue to pursue my career as an author and hope to have more opportunities to share my photography, writings, and natural history expertise with more Pacific Northwest readers in the future!
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. Today, as a university instructor, I continue to promote sustainable independent inquiry through curiosity-driven, active learning techniques that foster genuine discovery and bring out the excited little naturalists inside us all.
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.