Professor Spotlight: Dr. Paul Lukacs

A man smiles into the camera. A tree with yellow leaves stands in the background.

In Episode 54 of Confluence, Dr. Paul Lukacs, Senior Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation, shares about rivers, his journey to UM, wolverines, among other animals, and why statistics matter in Ecosystem and Conservation Science.  

Story Transcript

Anna Moeller: Paul is a great mentor. He is very good humored, he absolutely loves what he does, he works really hard and he knows his field inside and out, but he maintains a really positive balance in his life.  

Sara Williams: What’s really cool about Paul specifically in his role as a PhD and grad student advisor is that he’s really approachable. You know some people are approachable by like, being overly bubbly and overtalking and all that stuff. But Paul is just really kinda calm and straightforward. 

AM: Paul is uniquely good at follow through and closing. He is absolutely the person you want on your team when you're reaching the finish line of a project or a degree, and you need encouragement and resources to get it done. 

SW: I would describe him as being you know really open, very understanding and supportive of grad students, and definitely a quantitative nerd. 

KINCH: This is Confluence where great ideas flow together, a podcast of the Graduate School of the University of Montana. On Confluence, we travel down the tributaries of wisdom and beauty that enrich the soil of knowledge on our beautiful mountain campus. 

You just heard the voices of Anna Moeller (molar) and Sara Williams, graduate students in the program in Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, talking about our guest on this week’s episode, Dr. Paul Lukacs.  

I'm your host, Ashby Kinch, Dean of the Graduate School.  

In this episode, we talk with Paul, who got his B.S. here at UM, but then did his graduate work at Colorado State in Fishery and Wildlife Biology before returning to take up a faculty position in UM’s Department of Ecosystem and Conservation Sciences, where he is currently chair. He’s also the new Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation.  

Every episode, we ask our guests to read a poem, or a short passage from literature, about rivers. Paul has chosen “River Rhyme,” by William Carlos Williams, a poem whose imagery captures the details of the rivers of New Jersey, Paul’s home state. After he reads it, we hear Paul’s account of his own contrarian nature, which led him to Montana as an undergrad, where he discovered his interest in science and became a “quantitative nerd,” in between casting lines in the regional rivers. He’s a scientific high-flier now, and this episode explores his work as a quantitative ecologist, using advanced statistical methods to refine population modeling techniques in conservation biology. We talk about that work, including his spinoff company “Speedgoat,” which fulfills contracts for public agencies throughout the West, including Canada. And as always, we talk about his role as a mentor of graduate students, as well as his interest in developing professional Masters degrees for working scientists.  

Welcome to Confluence, where we follow the course of the rumpled river!  

Paul Lukas: River Rhyme by William Carlos Williams. 

The rumpled river 

 takes its course 

 lashed by rain 


This is that now 

 that tortures 

 skeletons of weeds 


and muddy waters 

 eat their 

 banks the drain 


of swamps a bulk 

 that writhes and fat- 

 tens as it speeds. 


Ashby Kinch: Thank you for joining us, Paul.  

PL: Thanks Ashby it's great to be here. 

AK: Yeah. So, on Confluence one of the things we love to hear is what people's Montana stories are, and you've got kind of an interesting one. We heard from William Carlos Williams, a Jersey poet and of course, Jersey's a great tradition of poetry. Walt Whitman, William Carlos Williams, Allen Ginsburg, Naughty By Nature. So, tell us a little bit about how you ended up here.  

PL: Yeah. First, I enjoyed the poem, because it makes me think about how rivers in New Jersey and Montana are different in that they generally come out of wetlands in New Jersey, where they descend out of mountains in Montana. And it's a neat little contrast. And I think he really captured that nicely in the poem.  

AK: The eating of the banks and the muddiness and the kind of swirling soil of a river versus those clear clean ones that we're used to here.  

PL: Exactly. Yeah. So, my Montana story starts when I was a kid, just always thinking about fishing and being outside. And it started in my eighth-grade science teacher after...I was a strong student, but he's like, you can't get a job in hunting and fishing. Got to take life seriously. And so that got me thinking, well, no, I probably need to get a job in hunting and fishing.  

And then went into high school of course, when I was in high school in the early 90s, it's "A River Runs Through It" time, was reading Norman Maclean and, and saw the movie and that sort of thing and just dying to get to Montana.  

AK: So, you actually fit the cliche.  

PL: Oh, absolutely. 

AK: You fit the Tourism Board cliche that you saw the movie and discovered Norman Maclean and like, I gotta get to Montana.   

PL: A hundred percent yes. And then like through high school, I realized that wildlife biology was actually a major. And the University of Montana had it as a major. And also, the University of Montana has the early application rolling admission thing. So, I sent my application in in October, or maybe earlier, and I heard back immediately that I had been accepted and was like, okay, I'm going to the University of Montana. Much to the chagrin of my guidance counselor who was going to New Jersey, if you're not applying to Princeton, and Harvard and spending thousands of dollars on application fees, you're somehow a failure. And I just didn't see it that way. I was settled on where I wanted to go. My friends were all panicked about school and filling out essays and all sorts of things like that. I was really content.  

AK: You're working on your cast.  

PL: Yeah, literally. Yeah. And so then I came out here, fall of '95 I believe it was, and got right into schoolwork. I rounded out all my mathematical requirements for the major my freshman year and thankfully, I'm done with that. I'm going to go on to studying fuzzy mammals. And then my sophomore year, I looked back, I was like, hm, I'm not taking any math, I think I actually really enjoyed that. So, then I started adding in all sorts of math classes and computer program classes on top of the wildlife biology curriculum, and realized that's where my niche was.  

AK: But that was more so, as a student that was more out of interest. It wasn't like someone was saying hey, do this statistical work and you'll be great in the field. It's, it's just your pure intellectual interest.  

PL: Yep. intellectual interest. And couple, yeah. I had a summer job working at the National Elk Refuge for a couple years. And so I got to see some of the struggles they were going through there. And they invited me back one winter to just go out, they do that elk feeding thing, and they have the big trucks that are dropping pellets down for the elk. And I was riding with one of the biologists who was, and he said, okay, we're gonna do our elk count now. And he did his count. And I did my count. And he asked me what my number was. And then he's like, well, you were close. And then whatever his number was. How is my number less reliable than your number? I don't believe that this is real. 

AK: I've been doing this, yeah, yeah. 

PL: So, it just got me interested in how do you actually come to those sorts of pieces of information? What are the skills needed?  

AK: Yeah, and we'll get back to this. But like, that's one of the things that fascinates me about your research is that you're really, you know, what, the kinds of tools and technologies you're developing with the software, but also just using data that we're getting in from the camera traps and other sources, you're really changing, fundamentally, in a way, the way we're going to do field biology in the future. So that the limitation was kind of the way the work was getting done. But that involved switching and having an analytical tool to kind of look at it a different way.  

PL: Right. Yeah. So, a big piece of our limitation and wildlife work is actually being able to measure what we want to observe.  

AK: Yeah.  

PL: Animals hide and move around and things and they're hard to count.  

AK: Yeah.  

PL: But those counts and other demographic rates are really important for us understanding and making decisions that get us to where we want to be.  

AK: Yeah. And so for listeners, you know, we'll have links in the show notes, but you know, the pictures you show in your articles really illustrate that problem where you have fuzzy pictures, and there's an animal in there, but you can, you know, the naked eye can barely even pick it up. And so it really, perfectly illustrates the problem you're talking about.  

PL: Yep.  

AK: So, you took that, you know, from Montana, you knew you wanted to head on and do the PhD. So, tell us that part of the story. And you know, what you decided to focus on. 

PL: Yeah, so I was pretty dead set on just going straight through to a PhD. Work shadowed a biologist when I was in high school, and they told me that nobody really goes on to their PhD, but the guy in charge of their lab did. I was like oh, I want his job more than your job. So, I think I'll go straight through.  

So yeah, so I went to Colorado State for grad school did a masters and a PhD there, working some of the more statistically minded folks who were on the faculty at Colorado State, which was great.  

AK: Was that intentional as well, though, like, in other words, you were matching with him, at that point, you kind of knew you wanted to hone in on the math side. 

PL: Yeah. And so my major professor for my masters had actually been here to UM to give a seminar. And so I tracked him down when he was given a seminar and was like, hey, here's my resume. Yeah. And so that wound up working out. And then yeah, went on to a PhD there as well. And then I wound up working for Colorado Parks and Wildlife, which is their State Wildlife Management Agency for six years as a biome attrition. So, I did a lot of their statistics, and help the researchers out with experimental design kinds of things, which was a really great experience. And gave me a lot of chance to work on analysis, see lots of different kinds of data.  

AK: But that was more of a desk job rather than a field job.  

PL: Oh, absolutely.  

AK: Everyone else is getting the data, feeding it back to you. And you're doing the quant work.  

PL: Nobody really wants me doing the fieldwork.  

AK: That's funny. So, it turns out your original elk count was off.  

PL: Oh, I'm sure it was. But I'm also sure that the biologist cell count was off too. 

AK: His was also off, yeah, cool. And what brought you back to Montana? That's the rest of the journey.  

PL: Yeah. So, I was living in Fort Collins, which is a very nice place to be. So, I wasn't eager to leave. But I was at a professional conference and saw the job ad for a quantitative ecologist here in the Wildlife Program popped up. I was like, hm, that's a place I want to get back to.  

And I was getting to the point at Colorado Parks and Wildlife where I had kind of pulled off the easy, low hanging fruit. And I wasn't really being allowed to dive into the bigger problems that I saw were there. But yeah, the agency didn't quite have the bandwidth to be handling. And I wanted some more challenges. And so I applied and was offered a job here. My wife is also an ecologist and so we had a bit of a two body problem to accomplish to get her a position here as well. But with a little gut-wrenching negotiation, we got... 

AK: You pulled it off. And of course, it's an amazing program, there's this incredible history and reputation. So, I mean, you know, anyone in the field, much less someone who did their undergraduate degree would love to get a job.  

PL: Oh, yeah. I can't imagine who else was on the list. 

AK: Yeah. But it's interesting, you bring up the quantitative part in the job listing itself, that must be relatively new, in other words, in the last decade or so, or maybe 15 years where that has risen to the top of a kind of set of skills that really aren't necessary now.  

PL: Yeah, it started really rising in the mid 80s, with the advent of easy of high-speed computing, and then just exploded in the last 15 years. And now every wildlife program has at least one quantitative ecologist. 

AK: Yeah, I remember one of our first interviews on Confluence with was with Scott Mills. And he said, you know, I always ask people, you know, what do they wish they had taken in college that they didn't? And he said, he wishes taken more stats, right, that kind of marks the generational shift where it was really important for conservation work to know this statistical material better.  

PL: Yep.  

AK: Yeah. So, it's going great. And you're doing this incredible work, which we're going to get into, I think that I'm interested to hear you talk a little bit about the high-level stuff, like what are these big problems that the field is, is struggling with, that you're trying to address in your work?  

PL: Yeah, so one of the biggest problems we see from the sort of population modeling and understanding population processes is that there's this tension between local variation. So, animal numbers bouncing up and down on a small scale. So maybe it's like Missoula County, like, deer up deer down kind of thing.  

AK: So, we're not talking about evolutionary very late very short time, we're talking about population numbers in a cycle.  

PL: Yep. And then thinking more broadly, what are the ecological processes that actually drive populations. And so much of this small-scale variation is due to animal movement, or observation error. And you can't usually tease those two apart. But very little of the small-scale variation has to do with any actual biology. And then the larger scale is trying to understand these biological processes. Of course, people see small scale, they don't see big scale. So, perception is, is being driven by small scale variation, where actual processes, and what we need to manage has to happen at a bigger scale. And so we're, we're constantly fighting that tension of those two things. 

AK: And I think we experienced this very acutely in western Montana, when we think about from a hunter’s perspective, you know, the number of permits given, for example, to hunt mountain lions up in my neck of the woods up in the Rattlesnake. You can track that number. And if you're a hunter, all that matters is how many there are in the Rattlesnake, right? But the bigger picture is the flows of deer in and out of the valley. And they're coming from somewhere else sometimes. And so you can see at a local level, why we get myopic, right? We collapse around our, you know, given perspective. 

PL: Yeah, and think like, a rancher who has a pile of deer on his hay pile. He's really concerned about those deer right there.  

AK: Yeah, yeah.   

PL: And so you're constantly balancing these local scale problems with larger scale.  

AK: Yeah. And so your research is fascinating, because now you're trying to sort of draw on existing technologies for camera traps, that are locating animals, and get away from the human perceptual error problem, right, by using technology, getting it in the right place, getting the right data, and then your key innovation is the way you apply statistical modeling to that. So, talk about that in a way that someone with an English PhD can understand.  

PL: Yeah, so the, the lot of the keys to what we've been doing our modeling is a bit going back to the basics. So, making sure that people are paying attention to basics of study design randomization, and paying attention to how the data that they're collecting actually arise. So, think about the statistical distributions that lead to the data that are seen. And so one of my graduate students, Anna Moeller, was able to develop a new estimator for camera data that allows us to get directly at abundance from photos, which is sort of like the Holy Grail of data collection. So now we can observe multiple species with the same method, same amount of field effort and get information we never really had access to before.   

AK: Yeah, and to me, that's really interesting to me too, the multiple different kinds of species you work on. You see in wildlife biology, there's certain people who kind of species specialize versus those who are doing technical or technological things that go across fields, you're in that latter category, right? You can work on anything have worked on fishers, which I loved your title had that word ghost in it. But that's also the term that's applied to the Wolverines, right, ghost of the mountains is sometimes referred to I think it's that title of a, of a documentary by Andrew Morans, I think, is the name of it, where it's describing the Wolverine as is, you know, mysterious...but you've worked on both. And your technology kind of works to capture animals, especially that are hard for humans to observe directly.  

PL: Right. Yeah. And so since I work on the statistical end, those statistical principles apply broadly. No one should have me design the field aspect of the Fisher survey. I leave that to biologists who understand small carnivore...  

AK: Fisher behavior.  

PL: Yeah, that that's not my thing.   

AK: Yeah.   

PL: But being able to think about how the statistics we have can be applied across a broad range, or how can we slightly tweak this existing method? And now make it work? In a new setting.  

AK: So partly, I'd like to dive into the Wolverine study for a couple of reasons. One, best species name ever. Right, say it.  

PL: Wolverine is a great, yeah.  

AK: But the technical name...  

PL: Oh, the Gulo Gulo? 

AK: Gulo Gulo! Which means greedy, greedy, basically, right? That, you know, he's an eater of car...I love that name. Both of them are great. And of course, Michigan, University of Michigan alum here. So wolverine. But did you get out in the field and that study? Or was it literally the entire study was your drawing on other people's fieldwork?  

PL: Yes. Sadly, I never once got out in the field for that study. So, I was involved at the early get go. So that was a group of states in the West decided they wanted to get a jump on a potential endangered species listing for Wolverines. And they were going to take some proactive steps to better understand their Wolverine populations.  

So, they got a group together, state biologist, and they contacted a couple of university folks. And I helped them start to design that project, and then kept an eye on it as it was being implemented. And so the state biologist did all the fieldwork. And then they sent the data to me after it was done. And we actually went up to Lubrecht Experimental Station, and spent three days there, the whole group of us, and we analyzed all the data in a few days and got the outline of a manuscript cranked out, and... 

AK: It's an amazing study. I mean, the details caught my attention, gender balance in the Wolverine population. So that across it looked almost 50/50, 24 and 24, or something, if I'm remembering it correctly, some weird things caught my attention, I mean I love Wolverines, so you know, I read that one with special attention. But for the listeners, you know, Wolverine, if you don't know anything about Wolverines, they cover an incredible amount of territory in a day even, lots of vertical climbs and descents. And so the designers had to be quite clever about where to put the cameras and seasonal snow was a key feature, it has to be resistant to extremely high snow packs, because some of the cameras I'm assuming were at very high elevation.  

PL: Yeah. And they were brought in before the snow and people climbed up the trees and put the cameras up way high in anticipation that the snow was coming.  

AK: Yeah, I thought that detail is really fascinating. So, so that, but that's down in the gritty fieldwork, and then you're taking the data at the end of that, and doing these, essentially confirming that, based on your population estimates, what we actually recorded, you know, what, what a legitimate population estimate would be?  

PL: Yeah, and so in that study, we weren't actually looking at population size, but distribution  

AK: Distribution, right. Yeah.  

PL: And so it helped confirm that areas around Glacier National Park, Bob Marshall Wilderness have population, but they extend through most of the area we surveyed. And now coming up in the next couple of years, the states got together a redoing that survey and expanded out to some of the further mountain ranges. Wolverines been observed in California recently, in Oregon. And so it'll be expanded out under the same design.  

AK: Yeah. And with the Wolverine, in particular, it kind of highlights this issue that you started with, which is because they cross such vast territories and move so much, they're inevitably moving across management areas. And so, you know, your work is kind of highlighting the importance of, especially with a species that distributes like that. You have to coordinate these agencies. And that article also had a kind of side line. I think that was the one that discussed, aerial cost of aerial, human costs of aerial surveys. In other words, an aerial survey, it's not just that it's expensive to run a plane, but it's also dangerous and people die.  

PL: Yeah, that was probably the software paper, but yes, the leading cause of death in biologists is helicopter crashes.  

AK: Yeah, yeah. And that's, that's something that, you know, people in the local forest service that I know talk a lot about, about fire risk. People don't really think about the risk to humans of running all of those planes to go, you know, dump fire retardant on fire. The human cost there is, is very real. But that's of course, the pressured conditions of a fire, whereas wildlife biologists, they're not under pressure on that plane.  

PL: Yet not so much if it's just a fixed wing aerial survey, but you put a helicopter and you're trying to radio collar deer. The way they're, they're captured is helicopter net gunning. So, you have a pilot, and a person who is called the mugger who's hanging halfway out of the helicopter with a rifle that has a net thing on it, net launcher on it. They swing around to deer, chase it around for a minute or two until they get the right angle, shoot it with a net. And then the guy hops out of the helicopter and tackles it. And so they're putting those helicopters under extreme stress.  

AK: Every bit of that is dangerous.  

PL: Yeah, every single instance of it. 

AK: Yeah, and what I mean, just to be clear, what I mean, is not the pressure to fly the flight, originally, not once they're in it, I just mean, like, you don't have to go net a deer. And I think that's what your work is trying to put our attention on is that we can get away from this model.  

PL: Yeah, and net and tackle the deer. That's not trivial for the deer either.  

AK: Yeah, right. Right. Distress and harm on the animals, absolutely.  

Well, and, and this kind of is a nice segue into your interest in Daniel Kahneman's work, because of course, you know, what made his work and Amos Tversky, his partner many, many years, so impacting in a lot of different fields is trying to get us to pay attention to how we make decisions, you know, what, what are the what are the psychological components that change our decision-making parameters? Mostly for the, you know, for ill, right? So, they're mapping this cognitive bias structure that shows up in most humans on a lot of questions. And so, sort of saying we have to shift frames. So how does that work? You know, and so I know you've been reading him recently. How's that kind of play into your research? And what ideas are you getting out of that?  

PL: Yeah, so we'll wind up in a lot of situations where we're working with agencies that have limited data, and it's spotty from place to place, it's just too expensive and too daunting to collect every piece of data everywhere. So, they have pieces of data. And so we've been working a lot on how to bring those varying sources of data together into a single model to elucidate management decisions.  

And in doing that, one of the things we see is you'll see a time series of say, the proportion of bucks to does in a deer population. The agency will collect that at a hunt area every year. And it'll go along, and it'll be at one kind of constant average for five or eight years or something. And then all of a sudden, they'll change. And then it'll be at a new constant, kind of average for a few years, it'll change. So, what year did you hire a new biologist? And you can basically recreate the history of turnover in an agency by looking at the time series of data.  

AK: That's amazing.  

PL: And so those changes only reflect observation, not biological process.  

AK: So, the lesson being if you're reacting to that, you're acting the wrong thing, right? So, you have to both be comfortable with the model that replaces it. In other words, it has to be, you know, better, but it also sort of focuses our attention on the human component where human bias or human error, would play into that.   

PL: Right. And could there be a different method we could use that would reduce that human component?  

AK: Yeah. Yeah. Excellent. Well, it's, it's fascinating work. And of course, you know, across the reason that work has resonated across all fields, I think is that we can kind of see in our daily lives, some of those same patterns, right, what whether it's, you know, in general, most people aren't walking around with it as sophisticated a statistical engine as you have. But what you've done with your research is start making those tools available. So, tell us a little bit about Great name, by the way. Love to hear the story about that.  

PL: Yeah. So, Speedgoat started as a research project here at the University of Montana. So, I was contacted by Panthera, which is a Wildcat conservation organization. They were interested in some mountain lion population models, Montana Fish, Wildlife and Parks was interested in some mountain lion population models. Idaho Fish and Game was interested in deer population models. Some of the folks were interested in sage grouse population models. And so I had graduate students and postdocs working on all this. And then one of my postdocs, Josh Nowac and I were kind of thinking through things like, these are all the same problem. What if we just solve this once? And he's a great programmer and a really good just problem solver. Like, don't make this too complicated. Let's just solve the problem. And so he and I started developing software, especially him on the software end, and came up with a sort of generalized, it's almost basically business intelligence software for wildlife agencies that helps collect data and then do the population modeling as well. And that got to the point where it was out of the research phase and into just needing to do maintenance. And the university doesn't like to get into maintenance kind of contracts. It's not a university’s job. And so they pointed us towards Blackstone Launchpad and the Technology Transfer group. And so Blackstone helped us set up a business and Technology Transfer gave us a license to use the software we developed. And then providing the University royalties, like, what sorts of things usually work. And so we started up Speedgoat in 2015/16-ish. And it was tiny and barely going for several years. But now we've got several full-time employees and an office down actually in the ecology project building.  

AK: Oh wow. So, several full-time employees just on contracts with these agencies, mostly state agencies... 

PL: Mostly state, state agencies, a few federal groups, and we actually worked with the Canadian government quite a bit.  

AK: Wow.  

PL: Both at the provincial and national level. 

AK: And that model is entirely running out of Missoula on data fed to you by these agencies.  

PL: Yep.  

AK: Fantastic. And it's a very sustainable model, right. And, and, you know, potentially, will continue to grow.  

PL: Yeah, I hope so. And Josh sure hopes so. Because he's a full-time Speedgoat employee now. 

AK: Yeah, that's what he's doing. That's what yeah, he runs the day-to-day operations.  

AK: Just out of curiosity, what's the marketing like for that? In other words, is it just all word of mouth and the agencies find out about it, and they come to you? Or are you kind of going out and advertising?  

PL: It's largely word of mouth. But it's, I mean, back in the days when we used to go to conferences, there was a lot of talking to biologists at conferences and... 

AK: Show up, show a demo. Show people what you can do. 

PL: Yep. And now it's a lot of Zoom demos. And yeah, and the software has really come a long way. It's got awesome mapping components, and develop study designs for you and do all sorts of error checking on your data. And what is now compared to what it was when we first started is night and day.   

AK: Yeah, yeah, one that's capital that allows you to improve it right? You bring more money into it, and you can refine the product. That's, that's a really great story. But your, you didn't go into the Montech. You're, you're on, you stayed on campus?  

PL: Well, I'm on campus, but the business is at the Ecology Project building, which is on Third Street just down along the river. Yeah, we never went into Montech itself.  

AK: Yeah. But it's just a great story about the spin-off of, of great proprietary, you know, intellectual work, you know, making this impact on the community.  

PL: Yeah, it's been great. And having the private option gives you a lot of flexibility, especially in computing, which is such a rapidly evolving world. We, state agencies can't keep up with the change in computing, their policies are always five or 10 years behind. And so they can't actually do what they need to do.  

AK: Yeah. And they probably can't recruit the talent quickly enough, either, you know, to train into that kind of work? Well, and that's a great segue, I think that talent bit is, it's one of the things we'd like to talk a lot about on Confluence, because, you know, in some ways, what graduate education is, is, you know, a talent identification and talent amplification project, right. It's to find great students and really push them forward. So, tell us a little bit about that. You've obviously had some great successes. And, you know, I'd love to hear about what, you know, you said that you think one of your greatest successes is actually one of your students work?  

PL: Yeah, absolutely. The camera estimation work is the most novel thing I've ever been involved in. And that is purely brains of Anna Moeller coming through. And so yeah, it's great to have a student where they have the natural talent, and the drive. And you give them a chance to kind of think on their own and come up with an idea that you haven't thought of. And so that's a great, great opportunity. And it, it takes a bit of patience to watch them develop. And then little encouragement along the way, but also getting out of their way when you need to not get in their way.  

AK: Yeah, yeah. No, I mean, that's an art, right? That's an art of mentorship as knowing when you might be crowding out a great student and really stopping them from reaching their highest potential.  

PL: Yeah. And when that camera project started, I thought it was impossible. I actually thought the project would prove that the cameras were useless.  

AK: Hmm. Interesting. And what's she doing with that now?  

PL: So, she moved on to a PhD now, and she's doing a PhD with me on population dynamics of ungulates in South Dakota. But she's also done a bunch of software development for the camera stuff. And so that just got released the other day. And, yes, she's got a very bright future.  

AK: We love to hear that. But of course, we also hear stories of struggling. I think that's an important one for us to talk about, too. One of the things we do is we try to demystify graduate education, you know, doesn't work out for every student. What are the kinds of things you do to kind of diagnose or find out when a student is struggling? And how do you kind of intervene to help them along?  

PL: Yeah, I think the most important thing is to get students to understand that graduate school is not a bachelor's degree part two, it's a totally different mindset in thinking. At least research based grad school is a much more independent process. And so you can't come in expecting to just get a list of courses to take... 

AK: Just check things off and move through.  

PL: Yeah. And so everyone we bring on, they're all intelligent. It's not like they can't do it. They're all very capable. Sometimes they get into grad school and realize this just isn't the field. I thought it was. Yeah, yeah. And then that's, that's an important thing to do. Because it's in nobody's best interest for someone to sit around and struggle through a degree for something they're never going to use again. So that sort of takes some deep heartfelt conversations about what are your real interests? And sometimes students realize, yeah, this is what I'm interested in other times, like, no, this just isn't the right path for me.  

AK: Yeah. Yeah. So sometimes, it's just saying, you need to choose another path. And let's, let's, let's cut the cord now. Before you, you know... 

PL: Before it is too late.  

AK: Yeah. Yeah. Before too much too much pain and suffering.  

PL: Yeah. You don't want to see someone wind up with an ugly transcript because they just weren't interested. So, if you can end things while it's still at a higher note, it's great for them too. 

AK: Yeah. Or if you can catalyze them to make a change.   

PL: Yep.  

AK: Yeah. Yeah. Well, and speaking of catalyzing to make a change, or in a new role, you are the Associate Dean of Research and Graduate Studies in the Frankie College of Forestry and Conservation, I always say "FCFC" on campus, and making sure for the listeners hear the full title. Tell us about that new role, and how do you envision what your what your role there is?  

PL: Yeah, so it's a new role. For me, it's also a new role within the college. So, in the past, there was just one associate dean who was doing all sorts of tasks. And now that the role got split into two and so Libby Metcalf is the Associate Dean of Undergraduate affairs, and I'm the Associate Dean of Graduate Research and Graduate Studies. So, it gives me a chance to help move forward the research enterprise in the College of Forestry and to pay particular attention to the graduate programs.  

We have 130 graduate students in the College of Forestry, in six different masters and two different, three different PhD programs. So, it's a, it's a complicated, diverse, graduate program. Students have a whole bunch of needs as they go through. So, kind of make sure that all their research assistantships are flowing, and all those sorts of general needs happen as well grant kind of stuff. But it also gives me the opportunity to think about curriculum, and multi faculty kind of broader research programs and things like that. The college just didn't have the resources in the past to focus on. 

AK: Yeah, and so the research component, especially in relationship to graduate education, that's, that's, of course, you know, from the associate Dean's perspective, that's what we care about a lot is that the public especially understand, we're aligned with the research office here at UM, not every grad school is, sometimes in the provost office. But that's a special feature of graduate education that we the the graduate student's talent, fuels and funnels the research enterprise. But then you've also said, and I think this is really interesting in your subfields, throughout forestry, that master's degree is kind of an important professional credential for people who go out and do applied work as well. So, talk a little bit about that. 

PL: Yeah, so the master's degree is essentially the first professional degree. Most of the permanent sort of area biologist managers have master's degrees. And so we produce a lot of master's students who do research theses, that essentially has a terminal kind of degree, they have no real plan on going on for a PhD. But that research background is huge for their work that's coming up, and gives them a chance to learn some more skills and learn science more deeply. And then they go on to very great careers as biologists and agency and nonprofits and... 

AK: Yeah, so you might work for Fish, Wildlife and Parks, but they might go work for a nonprofit that does, you know, wildlife. Focus on wildlife issues.  

PL: Exactly.  

AK: So, we end every episode with the quick hitters. You ready for this?  

PL: I'm ready.  

AK: Alright. Morning or night person?   

PL: Morning.  

AK: Western or eastern Montana? 

PL: Western, they're both great though.  

AK: You hesitated there. You spent some time out east? In the flatlands?  

PL: I love the breaks. 

AK: Nice. Yellowstone or Glacier?  

PL: Yellowstone.  

AK: Be honest now, you said in your answer Grand Teton.  

PL: Yeah, because it's closer to Grand Teton.  

AK: Yeah. What's the special about Grand Teton? 

PL: Um, childhood trips to Jackson Hole which kind of fueled my interest in moving to the west. Then my couple of summers working for the National Elk Refuge and spent just a ton of time in that area. 

AK: Winter or summer? Or fall or spring? 

PL: I'm a fall guy.  

AK: So, we're in it what's special about fall? 

PL: I love the transition watching the snow starting to accumulate and the cool and crisp air. 

AK: Yeah, fantastic. Sunrise or sunset? 

PL: Sunrise because it's in the morning. 

AK: Yeah. What's your favorite Montana River and why?  

PL: I love the Blackfoot because it's what I know well, I go...It just feels like... 

AK: A River Runs Through It. 

PL: Yeah, exactly. 

AK: You're still you're still hanging on to that. Yeah, the glow is still with you. What's your favorite Montana mountain range? 

PL: I really love the Sapphires. You don't see as many people there, they're not quite as rugged, but they have some cool things tucked into them. 

AK: What kinds of things? 

PL: Oh, like there's one spot I enjoy going to it's a peat bog, just high elevation flat peat bog. I think you just don't see that all the time. 

AK: Yeah, that's kind of neat. You're right. They are kind of the sort of younger sister of the Bitterroots and Missions and you know, even the Pintlers. Your favorite charismatic megafauna, and there is one right answer here. 

PL: I think it has to be a pronghorn. 

AK: Ah, he didn't say Wolverine. You were supposed to say Wolverine, but pronghorn, what's, what's special there for you? 

PL: Speedgoat. 

AK: Yeah. Oh, right. Well, yeah. And you didn't tell us the origin of the name. But is that that's where it came from?  

PL: Yeah. And so yeah, so it's a, it's a slang term for pronghorn.  

AK: Okay, I'd never heard that before.  

PL: Yeah, it refers to how fast and also software being fast and yeah. 

AK: But the goat part? Just because of the shape, the horns... 

PL: They look goat-ish.  

AK: Yeah, gotcha, gotcha.   

PL: Even though they're more closely related to giraffes.  

AK: Is that right? Biological note there, tucked in at the end. I like that. Last question, what's the one piece of music you would listen to for all eternity? 

PL: There's a recording that I found on YouTube of Oscar Peterson and Oliver Jones playing "Hymn to Freedom" that is just amazing. 

AK: We'll put it in the show notes for sure. For people who haven't listened to any Oscar Peterson. If you haven't, you're in for a treat. If you have this particular recording, I'd never heard. It's beautiful. It's so soulful, sort of end of life Oscar. 

PL: Yeah. Yeah. And if I ever had the opportunity to have two grand pianos side by side in my house, that would be the ultimate thing to do.  

AK: Would you play one?  

PL: I do play the piano, yeah. 

AK: And who would play the other? 

PL: Whoever... 

AK: Whoever showed up. It'd be there for when they showed up. Well, thanks so much for joining us on complying. Paul. 

PL: Thanks, Ashby. It's great to be here. 


KINCH: If you like what you’ve heard, you’ve got Cole Grant to thank. He’s a student in our MFA Program in Media Arts, and his editing touch makes all of this sound flow. 

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