Wild Roots, Bright Future: Graduate Finds Her Calling at UM

UM student Jocelyn Stansberry graduated from UM on May 11 and landed her dream job working with avian and carnivore species in Grand Teton National Park. (UM photos by Ryan Brennecke)
Jocelyn Stansberry (left) and her twin sister, Jaiden, prepare to graduate from UM on May 11.
Jocelyn Stansberry (left) and her twin sister, Jaiden, prepare to graduate on May 11.

By Emily Senkosky, UM News Service

MISSOULA – In the middle of the night, when the creaking of the crickets was the only detectable sound of life in Yosemite National Park, University of Montana Jocelyn Stansberry – only 14 at the time – would head outside with her bear biologist neighbor, armed with telemetry antennas to track radio-collared bears.

“You go out into the woods with this antenna, and then you listen for a beeping noise,” Stansberry said. “When it starts to get louder and faster, you know the bears are that way. And then you run off in that direction to try to find them.”

This apex predator hide-and-go-seek game was just one of the many quirks for Stansberry growing up inside national parks. Her parents worked for the National Park Service – her dad in law enforcement and her mom in education and administration.

Stansberry lived in three different parks before joining UM as a student: Homestead National Historical Park in Nebraska, Sleeping Bear Dunes National Lakeshore in Michigan and Yosemite National Park in California. Needless to say, a love for wildlife was second nature to Stansberry.

“I was like, if this is what working with the park service means, then this is what I want to do,” Stansberry said.

Stansberry’s upbringing was defined by the outdoors, and her time spent in national parks inspired her to attend college in the Treasure State. She also knew when she came to UM that she wanted to study wildlife biology.

Stansberry is one half of a very dynamic duo with her identical twin, Jaiden, and they both graduated this weekend from the W.A. Franke College of Forestry and Conservation. The twins are different but complementary in their interests. Jaiden, a UM Truman Scholar, is a wildland firefighter for the National Park Service and focused her coursework on forestry and fire. Both Jaiden and Jocelyn finished their undergraduate degrees in only three years.

“I think having Jaiden as a firefighter and having her experience trickling into my world of wildlife has made me really passionate about how these worlds overlap and how they will continue to overlap with climate change,” Stansberry said.

While in the wildlife program, Jocelyn Stansberry discovered a joy for research and fieldwork but wasn’t ever particular about one type of species. Her love for all types of creatures resulted in an academic tenure that consisted of a variety of different jobs that fell within the park service.

During the summer of her freshman year, she worked on traffic control in Yosemite, mainly helping to clear what they called “bear jams,” or traffic holdups, thanks to park visitors stopping to look at passing bears. She also volunteered with the avian and terrestrial wildlife teams, working with species like great gray owls, red foxes and Sierra Nevada bighorn sheep. She would have to use her own two eyes rather than radio telemetry to track these animals, often backpacking out into the backcountry of the park to try and spot the creatures.

Stansberry spent last summer wading through tidal pools and sifting through sand for bugs while doing biological fieldwork on micro-species in Olympic National Park along the coast and in the high alpine lakes of Washington.

She recently landed her dream job working with avian and carnivore species at Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming. Her professors worked closely with her to make sure she could jump on this opportunity, as the seasonal position started prior to her finishing her undergraduate courses. Stansberry left for the job at the end of April and returned to Missoula to take her finals and walk in UM Spring Commencement. She said that wouldn’t have been possible without the support of those in the wildlife biology program.

“All of my professors were like, ‘Absolutely. What’s the point of going to college if we're not going to let you get the job you want?’” Stansberry said.

One faculty member really shaped Stansberry’s time at UM. She met UM biology Professor Doug Emlen when he visited one of her classes freshman year, and his excitement for the field rubbed off on Stansberry. This inspired her to take some of Emlen’s classes, including Genetics and Evolution and Animal Behaviors and Evolution before she eventually joined his lab.

“He is such an excited individual that I thought, how could you not love anything he’s talking about? He is just so excited to share it with you,” Stansberry said. “Doug has definitely had the biggest impact on what I want to do in the field of animal behaviors.”

Stansberry’s senior thesis was based on work she did in Emlen’s lab, which is focused on studying the evolutionary biology of a variety of species. Stansberry’s research was in combination with Nicole Lopez, a Ph.D. student also in Emlen’s lab, on the dual function of elk antlers and how this has led to the evolution of the species and the shape of their racks in the present day.

“Jocelyn is fantastic to work with both in and out of the lab – hard working and great fun to have on a team,” Emlen said. “She is always enthusiastic and adapts well to the vagaries of fieldwork.”

Stansberry already is blazing trail on her postgraduate plans, exploring the rugged peaks in Grand Teton National Park for wolves and birds. She hopes to continue working for the National Park Service, which she has been fortunate enough to be part of for most of her life.

“The park service is something that has provided just such an incredible community to grow up in,” Stansberry said. “It’s kind of always felt like you had 40 family members at any given point in time. So, I would love to continue to be a part of that community.”


Contact: Elizabeth Harrison, director of communications, W.A. Franke College of Forestry & Conservation, 917-656-9773, elizabeth.harrison@mso.umt.edu.