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

One More Blog Out There

Hi there, family and friends! I have started a blog.*

What Will my Blog be About?

I’m still conceptualizing it, but I have some ideas. First of all, I love science (as my friends roll their eyes and say they had no idea.) Short of filling my Facebook newsfeed with geeky stories every two minutes, I thought perhaps I could channel some of the science headlines that I want to share in a more organized fashion. With a nerdy blog, I can make a list of really cool animals or volcanoes if I want to! I can describe a single species ad nauseam if I want—if I want no readers. Or I can share some of the awesome headlines of the day. The sky’s the limit! Well, my obsession with “Once Upon a Time” on NetFlix might be the limit; but, you know, same thing.

Second, I’m most definitely a faith-based person, and I like exploring different ideas within my faith and how they relate to science. The Great Debates that seem to occur in the comments sections of 10,001 different news pages, YouTube, Facebook, and all other cyber spots out there seem to indicate that you can either be scientific or you can be someone who believes in a higher power. I say pish-posh to the narrows! Don’t believe me? Well I guess you’ll have to stay tuned.

What Are My Bloggy Goals?

First, I would love to spark excitement about science! Stats show the US is lagging in scientific literacy compared to the rest of the developed world, but I think that when folks can see that science isn’t just a textbook—it’s an exciting way to learn about the amazing world around us—maybe that literacy level might change. So much of our world today requires some basic background knowledge, we owe it to ourselves to be informed citizens before heading to the polls or making various choices in our daily lives. Just look in the news—vaccines, global climate change, cancer, energy development, rises in autism diagnoses, seafood, organic vs. non-organic foods, the World Cup (wait…)—all of these topics and others require more knowledge than what you get in a newspaper article if you want to have a meaningful discussion. Part of the problem, though, is that there is a gap between the general public and the scientific community. We can speculate all we want about what’s causing the gap, but the only thing I know to do is inspire you to learn more. Plus, our world is darn cool. No, our planet is awesome! I’m blanking on really strong adjectives, but when you come up with one, that’s our universe! As I get going with this blog, I’ll admit that I’m definitely going to be biased towards biology since that’s where my training comes from, but I can admire and appreciate other disciplines from afar. Quantum mechanics…very afar.

Second, I’ll admit this is kind of a left-field reason, I want to help homeschooling families with science at home. I was homeschooled K-12 and I had a great experience with it. English was my mom’s second language and she only had a GED, but she was tremendously dedicated to my education. My sister and I never fell below the 90th academic percentile, and good heavens’ knows it wasn’t because we’re unusually smart (well, my sister is.) We simply had a mom who made our education and life experiences her first priorities. I believe that any motivated parent can do that as well, and I want to help! Science at home isn’t easy, though. Ask my mom. By high school, I needed tutoring for chemistry and physics, and we were always looking for creative explanations and experiments for me to bridge some gaps. Now, to be perfectly honest, I never really bonded with chemistry and I certainly never fell for physics, but I made some decent progress in my own little corner of the scientific community. Now I want to go back and help the folks who are where I was ten-fifteen years ago. Hopefully I can serve up some suggestions on how to supplement your selected curriculum and go deeper than the dusty pages.

Third, I want to foster a better relationship between the church and members of the scientific community. Since I have roots in both faith and science, I’m at a better point than most to understand the deeper significance behind all the confusion, dislike, rejection, and miscommunication on some very important and yet incredibly sensitive subjects in science. As someone who was raised conservatively and still believes in my Lord and Savior, I understand exactly how frustrating it can be to talk to an evolutionary biologist who doesn’t know or care why you believe what you do, but rather is only concerned with telling you how wrong you are and insulting your intelligence because of it. On the flip side, evolution was the subject of one of my doctoral qualifying exams, and I could probably tell you more about a molecular clock than I can the digital clock on my cell phone. The thing is, though, I’ll be upfront and say I’m not in it to instantly change minds. I just want to clear up some confusion, share some information, put the discussion on a better playing field, and hopefully diffuse some of the tension. I don’t like deriding comments coming from members of either the church or academic community, but I get both and I’m sure there are plenty of others who do as well. I just want to be a peacemaker J It doesn’t have to be science or faith. Unite the kingdoms! (But only if there’s a really hot prince in it for me…otherwise, we can just be friendly neighbors.)

Fourth: woman in science (drops the mic.)

Wrap up the Rambling**

I think this will do it for today. For future reference, I can’t picture myself coming up with more than one or two posts per week, but I guarantee you will get your full dose of Maria in each one (take that as either good or bad). I’m also going to guess that for a while, I’m going to be posting more gee-whiz kinds of things rather than diving into the deep, but we’ll get there. Hopefully this all made sense and sounds like something worth reading!

Peace, love, and science!



*Does that count as a complete introduction? Ok, cool. I can check that part off my list. I stared at my computer screen for about three minutes, unintentionally making an angry duckface, until I decided a pleasant greeting and statement of the obvious would suffice.


**Does that still count as alliteration?