Michael “Michi” Tobler placed a call to his father back home in Switzerland last spring when he learned he’d been offered the position of E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis.
The new job came with a dual appointment as senior scientist at the Saint Louis Zoo.
“Oh, finally,” Tobler remembered his dad saying in response to learning about his new zoo connection.
When the self-described “zoo kid” was growing up in eastern Switzerland, it was easy to imagine him working closely with any wildlife park down the road in his future career. But he instead took an academic path, earning his doctorate from the University of Zürich’s Institute of Zoology, securing a postdoctoral fellowship at Texas A&M University and landing full-time faculty positions at Oklahoma State University and, most recently, Kansas State University.
He’s excited by the crossover opportunities that come with his new position, which is meant to combine traditional teaching, research and scholarly obligations with engagement in community outreach and development in alignment with Des Lee’s vision.
“I feel like in past jobs I’ve always worn two distinct hats,” he said. “I was the researcher and regular professor on one side – doing research and teaching – and a huge other leg of what I’ve been doing was our public outreach and working on science communication projects. They’ve never intersected or fit together very well. Here, I feel like I can do those things wearing one hat. That’s just a unique opportunity.”
As he has started teaching and training UMSL students with the new semester underway, he’s also begun engaging center directors of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute and other Saint Louis Zoo team members to see how they might collaborate on research that connects his interests with the institute’s mission of conservation success through wildlife management and recovery and conservation science.
“We are very excited that Michi has joined our team as the new Des Lee Professor in Zoological Studies and Senior Scientist at the Zoo,” said Lisa Kelley, the executive director of the Saint Louis Zoo WildCare Institute and a member of the search committee, chaired by Associate Professor Aimee Dunlap, that recommended Tobler’s hiring. “Michi made it very clear since his first interview that he is passionate about zoos and the possibility that comes with them as leaders in wildlife conservation. Moreover, despite Michi’s stellar academic research career, he remains both intensely curious about the natural world and prioritizes using his research expertise to improve the conditions for wildlife and their habitats.
“He is a natural fit with our Zoo team, which I am certain will lead to innovative collaborations that will serve as models of positive impact on wildlife conservation efforts in the region and abroad.”
Tobler, mentored by Presidential Professor of Biology Ingo Schlupp at the University of Oklahoma, has focused his research on fishes of the family Poeciliidae. That includes some that have colonized extreme environments in caves or hydrogen sulfide-rich springs in Mexico and other tropical parts of Central and South America.
He and his students have been working to understand the patterns of and mechanisms underlying biological diversification. In particular, they want to know how and why organisms diversify phenotypically and how and why reproductive barriers evolve between populations.
Tobler has received more than $6.8 million in research awards throughout his career from funders including the National Science Foundation, the U.S. Department of Defense and the Army Research Office, and he has nearly 130 peer-reviewed publications such as Molecular Ecology and the Journal of Evolutionary Biology.
“Michi brings an integrative approach to his research that will promote multiple connections with other faculty in the Biology Department as well as with the Zoo,” said Associate Professor Wendy Olivas, who oversaw Tobler’s hiring before ending her term as chair of the Department of Biology in August. “His focus on science communication shines through his award-winning teaching and community engagement activities.”
Tobler said he had not been looking to leave Kansas State but was intrigued late last fall when he saw a job listing for the Des Lee professorship at UMSL.
The fact that his family had enjoyed themselves during an afternoon and evening in St. Louis the previous summer while driving to Kentucky on vacation made it easier for him to decide to apply.
Tobler had the opportunity to return when he was invited for an in-person interview in April. During that trip he met with several other Des Lee professors, including Patricia Parker, who retired last September after more than two decades as E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies.
“They really set the hook, to speak in fishing terms,” Tobler said. “Hearing what they’ve accomplished through this opportunity, there are big shoes to fill. It’s kind of scary on the one hand, but it’s also very motivating, and it’s just great to have these examples to follow as I try and figure out what I’m going to do in this position.”
Tobler, a first-generation college student, can also relate to UMSL’s overall mission to expand access to higher education and help students find success regardless of their background.
Two doctoral students from Tobler’s lab at Kansas State have followed him to UMSL, as has Bethany Williams, who received a postdoctoral scholarship from the National Science Foundation. He also plans to engage undergraduate students to assist with research and help tend to the colonies of fish that will have a home in the basement of Stadler Hall.