Under the Lens: Nolan Bielinski
Nolan Bielinski’s desk is in the maze-like basement of SES, and he sits in a back room with a lot of open workspace. But don’t let this remote corner of a weird building mislead you. Most of Nolan’s research, like that of many students in Dr. David Wise’s lab, takes place in the field. Nolan is studying frogs in the forest preserves around the Chicagoland area, and he and I sat down for a chat to discuss the finer points of acoustic ecology. This interview has been edited and condensed.
Tell me a little about your research in generalizable terms.
In a nutshell, I’m interested in how frogs around the Chicagoland area might be impacted by anthropogenic noise, meaning human caused noise from cars, planes and trains, and how they change their calling behavior in response to that noise.
How did you first get interested in frog noises?
I think mostly I was just interested in frogs, not necessarily their calling behavior. It was something that stuck out as a possible avenue for research. I knew I really liked amphibians, but you can’t do a dissertation just on amphibians, you have to narrow it down to something. It was something that required a lot of field work which was what I was looking for, but also at the same time it’s something that uses a lot of cool technology. Also, it’s a project I can continue when I go on to teach somewhere, my students can do their own little project.
I imagine that doing work out in the Chicago area you get a lot of interest from local passersby or hobby naturalists. Can you tell us about that?
There is a group that does surveys around the Chicagoland area called Calling Frog Survey, part of the Peggy Notebaert Nature Museum, that’s run by citizen scientists. They go out and listen during certain times of the year and record what species they’ve heard and where. I volunteered for one season doing this, and next field season I’ll be using their data to help make a game plan for what species I want to record and where. They’re very helpful. I do have some people who give me weird looks when I’m going through the forest preserves off the trail, but most of the time I don’t run into that many people when I’m conducting my experiments because they usually take place at night. Although one time, I was recording along a creek [at night], and a guy zoomed by on a mountain bike. I’m happy I didn’t run into him because I think we both would have been pretty freaked out. I’m allowed to be there because I get special permits to come to the Forest Preserves after hours, but other people come in and use them then even though they’re not supposed to.
You mentioned before you were really interested in doing field work as a big part of your PhD, do you do a lot of outdoor activities beyond academia?
Yes, I mostly hang out outside. I utilize my backyard more than I utilize my house especially during summer, spring, and fall. I have a dog, so I take my dog out to the forest preserves and parks. I play roller hockey with my friends, and I play baseball with a men’s league in Chicago. I also eat most of my meals outside in my backyard.
How did you decide on UIC?
I knew I wanted to stay local. I’m from Chicago. I also knew that I wanted to conduct research locally because I wanted to keep things simple while I’m getting my PhD and not have to rely on travel grants to get research done. The beautiful thing about my research is that most of the time I just go out to the closest forest preserve to my house to do my research. I can go out a couple hours before sunset and come home a few hours after sunset. If it’s raining, who cares? I just stay home because I don’t want to collect data while it’s raining; I want to keep things even. So I applied to all the schools around Chicago and I got one acceptance to a Masters and one to a PhD and decided I might as well go for the PhD. I feel like it would be easier to scale back if you were in a PhD program and get a Masters as opposed to finishing a Masters and then thinking “well I should have gone for a PhD.”
How do you feel about UIC?
I love it. I love the location, since I’m commuting from the South Side. I love the diverse student body. I think that’s probably the greatest thing about UIC. I came from a college that wasn’t diverse. So UIC is good as far as students who are diverse. I like the lab that I’m in too. I accepted David’s invitation to come here as a graduate student because he was the only one who offered, but also because our research goals aligned to contribute to conservation locally. Also, our personalities just mesh too. He’s somebody who’s pretty hands off. He lets you try your own things, which was what I was looking for anyways.
I know a big part of you participation on campus has been in teaching. You’re taking classes on teaching, but also really excelling at teaching in the classroom. Can you talk little bit about how you got interested in that and where you see yourself going with it?
That’s probably my favorite thing to talk about considering that I want to pursue a career in teaching. At first, I was just intrigued by the process of teaching in college, but I didn’t know whether or not I’d like the research route better than the teaching route or vice versa. But after the first semester of teaching Introductory Biology I realized that I liked interacting with students, and I liked helping them get through the process of studying for tests and figuring out what type of major they would like to pursue and decisions in the whole college process. I was also getting good enough reviews that were not discouraging. So I was like okay I’m good enough at it, I have fun doing it, and when I teach it feels like time flies by, so I’m like hey I can do this for a living. I feel like I’m getting better because I’m putting lot of effort into evolving my teaching strategies and teaching philosophy.
I’m pursuing a certificate in the Foundations of College Instruction. It’s a three course program here at UIC through the Graduate College and it’s great because you get to cross pollinate with other graduate students who you usually wouldn’t get to interact with. I’m usually stuck with all the other science geeks, but now I get the literature geeks and the political science geeks and all the other geeks and so that’s kind of fun.
What would be your dream class to teach?
I love the ecology lab. You’re teaching them the fundamentals of ecology and evolution, but you’re also going out and collecting real data. My big thing is I like collecting real data. I could have done a very similar project to what I’m doing with my frog calling behavior in a lab, in a controlled setting, but I like keeping it real, going out into nature and getting the real thing. Modelling and computer simulations really aren’t my thing. So some type of field-based course.
If you weren’t pursuing a PhD right now with a goal of going into teaching, what would be your trajectory? What would you be doing?
I’d be a professional baseball player, but I’ve had too many surgeries to really pursue that. In terms of a real career, I don’t know; everything is saying teaching or working in conservation.
PhDs are stressful, What are some things you do to blow off steam?
I go on many vacations with my girlfriend and my dog, just to Michigan or Wisconsin. Or maybe Minneapolis; Izzy’s ice cream in Minneapolis, MN, is a really good stop.
What is the one piece of advice you would give to someone just starting off the program here?
Stay organized! Put way more effort into organization that you think is necessary.
For a brand new student, I’d say try to make the most out of your teaching experience because you may like it. What I do is write extras notes about how my teaching went this semester. Then for the following semester, I can look back and see where I can improve and that helps out a lot.
My last piece of advice is don’t be too worried about where you’re research is going your first year. I spent my first year thinking about whether I wanted to do arthropods like everyone else in the lab or do I want to do my own thing. Then I spent my first field season going around collecting data completely differently than I’m doing now. It was a waste of my time, but it really wasn’t because it helped me get my ideas together. Some students put pressure on themselves to start their dissertation projects right away. If you have that, great, but if you don’t have that, it’s not a requirement.
What’s the coolest thing you’ve seen out in the field?
One time I was looking for American Toad breeding ponds with an undergrad volunteer in the daytime. We heard some toads calling in the distance and started walking across a field with tall grasses to get there. We almost stepped on something and I thought it was a dead possum or something like that at first. It turned out to be a live baby deer. The mothers leave fawns alone hidden away for the first couple of weeks while they’re unable to run, and only come back to nurse them. They don’t have a scent yet, so they’re really well camouflaged and protected. We were able to stand right next to it for as long as we wanted and got some great pictures.