Steel City Science

Pittsburgh skyline

I moved to Pittsburgh almost seven years ago when I first started graduate school. On the one hand, the first thought that pops into my head is “Holy crikeyness, that long ago? I’m old.” But quickly behind that thought is how much I’ve come to love this city. From my beloved hockey team to the view driving out of the Ft. Pitt Tunnels to the phenomenon of pierogies, Pittsburgh has become my second home. Beyond the sentimentality, though, is the science. Pittsburgh, aka, the Steel City, has a unique collection institutions and universities that produce some fantastic research ranging from robotics to wildlife biology, and everything in between.

Since I haven’t posted anything on here in precisely an age, I thought a good way to jump back in the writing boat would be to showcase some of the folks in Pittsburgh who work on really fantastic projects. And I’ll be honest, this post really should have been titled something like “Steel City Bio” since I’m a bit biased to living things, but I have an affinity for alliteration. And maybe I’ll have a sequel in the future! So without further hubbub…

 ~The Researchers~

Dr. Jonathan Pruitt—Assistant Professor at the University of Pittsburgh

We regular Joes and Josephines may shudder when we see single spider, let alone a group of spiders all hanging out together; but the cooperation between these eight-legged, erm, friends is precisely what gets Dr. Pruitt’s inquisitive wheels rolling. A behavioral ecologist in Pitt’s biology department, Dr. Pruitt focuses on intraspecific interactions between social spiders. In other words, he studies spiders that live and work together in giant colonies with giant webs (calming breaths and a happy song.) In addition, it turns out that within these colonies, individual spiders have personalities and “careers” based on their personality. The combination of different personalities within a colony of spiders has a direct impact on the persistence/survival of the entire colony! Now how’s that for spidey-senses?



Dr. Steve Latta—Director of Conservation and Field Research at the National Aviary

As the lead scientist at one of only a handful of institutions on the continent to be completely focused on birds, it makes complete sense that Dr. Latta is an ornithologist extraordinaire. His research has ranged from the biology of various species of songbirds and raptors to avian ecology and conservation as a whole. The National Aviary currently is overseeing a variety of projects including migratory bird habitat restoration, urban peregrine falcon monitoring, Louisiana waterthrush, and some citizen science efforts. You can learn more about what Dr. Latta and the Aviary are up to here!

As a few fun facts, Dr. Latta also keeps chickens and sold me a tank for the California kingsnake I kept in graduate school 🙂



Dr. Jose Padial—Herpetology Curator at Carnegie Museum of Natural History

A little like Dr. Pruitt’s spiders, Dr. Padial’s herps (reptiles and amphibians) might cause a shudder in some folks, but with a dash of an open mind, anyone can quickly see how cool his work is. Part evolutionary biologist, part conservationist, Dr. Padial’s has been a part of projects that span phylogenetics, speciation, biogeography, taxonomy, and any synthesis of these disciplines. While in Pennsylvania, he works with local species, but he also regularly travels to South America for a focus on frogs of the Amazon.



Dr. Joe Gaspard—Director of Science and Conservation at the Pittsburgh Zoo and PPG Aquarium

Many folks aren’t aware of how large a role zoos can play in wildlife research, but I can help with that! Dr. Gaspard came on board at the Pittsburgh Zoo in 2014, but before that, he had built up quite the publications list in the world of marine biology. Working on topics ranging from manatee vision, hearing and touch to loggerhead sea turtle biology, Dr. Gaspard has a brought a broad background with him to Pittsburgh—especially useful with the addition of the elephant seal Coolio currently in rehabilitation in the aquarium.



Dr. Brady Porter— Associate Professor at Duquesne University

Think I was going to leave this one out? Dr. Porter’s evolutionary biology background traditionally focused on conservation and the population genetics of freshwater fishes, but in recent years, work from his lab has included studies on toads, Louisiana waterthrush, golden eagles, and bald eagles. In addition to his own research, Dr. Porter has completed fish surveys with the Fish and Boat Commission, is on the board of directors for a local chapter of the Audubon Society, regularly organizes or takes part in such citizen science efforts as BioBlitzes and the Christmas Bird Count, and he used to have a grad student that looked like this.



Bonus Round!

The next two folks aren’t directly in Pittsburgh, but they are close by. Both affiliated with West Virginia University in Morgantown, WV, they’re just a quick drive away from the ‘Burgh, and their respective projects have an impact well outside Western Pennsylvania. So I think you all should learn about them.

Dr. Tricia Miller—Research Biologist

Part of a team with my former academic co-advisor (Dr. Todd Katzner of the USGS), Dr. Miller specializes in movement ecology of birds of prey—golden eagles in particular. Her work has revealed the migratory routes for golden eagles in the eastern half of North America, and she has done a great deal of research on home ranges, habitat use, and flight biology of goldens. In addition, she has been a driving force behind research that aims to minimize the potentially negative effects of wind power on birds of prey while still maximizing wind use. Dr. Miller uses cutting-edge cellular telemetry technology for her work, and I would wager she has come in contact with more golden eagles than anyone else in the world. I should also mention that’s a part of the Eastern Golden Eagle Working Group, and they are pretty much anyone who is worth knowing 😉



Dr. Jonathan Hall—Assistant Professor

If you’ve ever wondered how our day-to-day lives can impact the wildlife around us, talk to Dr. Hall. Though his research focuses on the effects of subsistence culture, I’m sure he is more conscientious than most of us when comes to an awareness of the human-wildlife interface. An ecologist by training, Dr. Hall’s work has covered the effects of weather patterns on vultures, the effects of cultural conservation practices on biodiversity, and broadscale ecological community interactions in rural India. And even more importantly, as a former Buckeye, he knows that The is part of the name at The Ohio State University.


That’s all for now, folks! Peace, love and science 🙂

Pittsburgh skyline