Michael “Michi” Tobler has taken over as the E. Desmond Lee Endowed Professor in Zoological Studies at the University of Missouri–St. Louis (UMSL), effective Aug. 15. As part of his new role, he will also serve as Senior Scientist at the Saint Louis Zoo. See the UMSL announcement below and read the blog.
Tobler, born and raised near Lake Constance in northeast Switzerland, earned his doctorate from the University of Zürich’s Institute of Zoology and completed a postdoctoral fellowship at Texas A&M University. He previously held full-time faculty positions at Oklahoma State University and, most recently, Kansas State University.
His new position offers several crossover opportunities, combining 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.”
Tobler started teaching and training students last month when UMSL’s fall semester began on Aug. 21. He is also 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, PhD, 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 authored 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, a first-generation college student, was also drawn to UMSL’s 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 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.