Meet Missouri Scientist, Zack Miller
Written by Madalynn Owens, MOST PR Assistant
Zack Miller is a 4th year Ph.D. candidate in the Division of Biological Sciences who seeks to better understand the impacts of climate change on important ecological interactions, such as pollination. Zack says his interest in nature was inspired by his experiences outdoors during his childhood.
“I grew up near a creek and was super fascinated by everything that would move and [I would] try to catch it and keep it in a tank,” Zack said. “I loved flipping over old rotten logs and watching centipedes scurry away. I’ve just always been amazed at the diversity of life.”
Zack didn’t begin earnestly practicing science until 2017 – he began his college education studying business administration, and later graduated from Truman State University with a degree in environmental studies, shaped by coursework in anthropology, biology, and agriculture. After graduation, he served in the United States Peace Corps as an Agriculture Extensionist in Paraguay for over two years. After finishing that program, Zack was left with questions about what to do next.
“The consistent theme throughout all of this is that I love biology,” Zack said. “In Paraguay, I was passionate about using ecological design principles to attract biodiversity to agricultural spaces. I saw pollinators as a link between these systems.”
Ecological design principles in agriculture use natural features of the land and ecological processes to create agricultural spaces that support biodiverse ecosystems. This process takes advantage of natural cycles, such as energy flow, nutrient cycling, and predator-prey dynamics, to decrease the need for intensive human intervention. Farmers can reduce their dependency on agrochemicals and attract more beneficial insects (like pollinators or parasitic wasps) by practices such as planting hedgerows along field edges or sowing cover crops between plantings to build soil health.
Pollinators visit flowers to feed on pollen and nectar and facilitate plant reproduction by moving pollen from flower to flower. This process is vital for both natural ecosystems and agriculture. About 30% of the food crops we eat require animal pollination, most of which is done by bees.
Zack researched schools and degree programs all over the country to find professors who were studying pollinators in agricultural and natural ecosystems. Professor Emeritus Candace Galen was one of the main reasons that Zack chose the University of Missouri. Her research focuses on the interactions between plants and pollinators She is interested in understanding how climate change and environmental stress impact pollinators and their host plants.
Zack’s research also investigates how climate change impacts pollinators. Currently, he is studying bumblebees and their host plants in the Rocky Mountains in Colorado. His research uses acoustics – as in the buzzes that bees make when they fly from flower to flower – to eavesdrop on bumblebee health and pollination services across the landscape. Zack has been collaborating with other scientists to develop tools that will allow researchers to monitor bumblebees remotely instead of needing to be on-site to monitor them. By understanding the different kinds of buzzes that bumblebees make. Zack seeks to inform conservation and management practices to better understand how to preserve these vital pollinators for years to come.
Communication and Outreach in Missouri
Outside of his research, Zack enjoys sharing science with the citizens of Missouri. As the Executive Chair of Science on Wheels, an MU-based science outreach organization, Zack is hands-on with the brainstorming, development, and planning of the presentations that the organization delivers to the public. Science on Wheels aims to introduce Missourians to local scientists through engaging presentations and casual discussion panels. Science on Wheels works with a variety of schools and community organizations and has traveled to 19 counties and hosted almost 30 events throughout Missouri since it was founded in 2017. Science on Wheels is volunteer-based and is run entirely by graduate students and postdoctoral fellows.
“Everything that we are doing is extracurricular,” Zack said. “Our speakers volunteer to be a part of this organization because we are all passionate about trying to share science with the public.”
Science on Wheels presenters share their research, area of expertise, or general scientific interest for 5 minutes before opening the floor to questions from the participants. Many of the speakers bring models, diagrams, or other visual aids to make their presentation more engaging. A primary aim of Science on Wheels is to spur discourse between scientists and non-scientists.
“There’s obviously a big disconnect between scientists of all sorts and the general public so we’re trying to deliver it in a personable way that is less intimidating for the general public,” Zack said.
With the switch to virtual presentations due to the ongoing pandemic, Science on Wheels is learning that many of their target audiences have become more challenging to reach.
“What we quickly found out was that the kinds of places we were traveling to in-person were the slowest places to adapt to online meetings, like a nursing home doesn’t have a setup for everybody to Zoom in easily and ask questions,” Zack said.
Science on Wheels is adapting to remote outreach by focusing more on science education for elementary and middle school classrooms because of how quickly they were able to set up virtual and hybrid learning environments. The National Science Foundation has developed the Next Generation Science Standards (NGSS), which are checkpoints that teachers need to meet to keep students on track with science education. Science on Wheels wants to shift their presentations so that they can assist teachers by bringing in more pertinent speakers to meet the content needs of the students.
“We hope that it can become more of our speakers adding to their lesson plans rather than just giving them information about a cool science field that might not be relevant to the student at that time,” Zack said. “If they’re trying to study sound waves and we come in to talk about cell communication, it doesn’t quite match up.”
Zack is working with the executive board to isolate overlap between NGSS content and the graduate students’ areas of expertise and will be updating their training modules accordingly. Currently, the training – which extensively covers best practices for science outreach, effective presentations, storytelling, and general tips from past speakers – is being modified to include resources for more effective virtual presentations.
“With this approach, we can establish strong partnerships with Columbia Public Schools and we have the potential to be a long-lasting organization at Mizzou,” Zack said. “When the pandemic ends, we can continue traveling to places, including schools, and also return to places that didn’t end up getting a strong online presence during the pandemic.”
Zack and the Science on Wheels executive committee are working on bringing science outreach to rural demographics and diverse organizations. One of their goals is to host an event with Centro Latino de Salud, a Latino community center in Columbia. They have also been talking with teachers in rural school districts throughout Missouri with the aim of broadening Science on Wheels’ impact beyond Columbia Public Schools. They hope to bring on as many new MU scientists as possible to share their science with Missourians across the state, be it ‘on wheels’ or ‘on screens’.
“We’re trying to show just how diverse MU scientists are,” Zack said. “We’re trying to elevate the students that are here at the University, which is a really diverse group already, and get them involved with speaking to the public about their work.”
Thinking About the Future of Missouri’s Land
After his time at the University of Missouri, Zack wants to work in science policy, specifically related to land use, agriculture, and climate change mitigation action.
“Policymaking is one of the best avenues for change,” Zack said. “I want to use my training as a scientist and communicator to help inform policies that can promote conservation and sustainable land use.”
In Missouri, almost 97% of the land is privately owned. One of Zack’s interests for future science policy is to work with Missourians on how to best use their land to brace for climate change. Through incentive programs, capacity building, and education, landowners may be able to help create biodiverse croplands and cities that are more resilient to the effects of climate change.
“I intend to spend my career engaged in this work, aiming to help transform Missouri into a more beautiful, safe, and productive place for all beings,” Zack said.