Mario Pesendorfer: From Vienna to Nebraska to Washington, DC


Pesendorfer in the field
Pesendorfer with an Island Scrub Jay. Image courtesy of Biological Sciences.

When Mario Pesendorfer attended a seminar on avian cognition in Vienna, Austria, where he was working on his Master’s degree, Nebraska was perhaps the furthest thing from his mind. But after speaking with Professor Alan Bond after his presentation and learning about the possibility of working on a PhD at Nebraska, Mario decided to visit the University to experience the exciting research possibilities firsthand. After visiting the Center for Avian Cognition, where he had the opportunity to interact with faculty and students, Mario decided to apply to UNL to work with Professors Alan Bond and Alan Kamil. Pesendorfer came to Nebraska not only to work with specific faculty, but also because of the department’s reputation. The opportunity to conduct research with the Center of Avian Cognition, along with a competitive five-year contract guaranteeing funding, sealed the deal for Mario.

Biological Sciences offers research and travel grants to graduate students pursuing their own research. Because Mario wanted to add a fieldwork component to his lab research, he applied for a  grant to study on Santa Cruz Island in California, where Smithsonian researchers had banded Island Scrub-Jays for tracking. The work done by Smithsonian researchers gave Pesendorfer access to a fieldwork infrastructure where he could observe scatter-hoarding behaviors in the wild. That first summer, “I learned a lot,” Mario said. By the second summer in the field, Mario, originally trained as an experimental psychologist, felt at home working as a field ecologist. “That’s the nice thing about working on a PhD in the US,” he explained. “Not only do you have time to do a PhD, you have time to learn a new set of skills. I learned methods ranging from vegetation sampling in the field to simulation modeling of virtual animal behavior.”

The fieldwork over his first two summers set the groundwork for Mario’s future collaboration with the Smithsonian. The project on Santa Cruz Island in the Channel Island National Park (CA) is run by the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. “From my second year on, I was collaborating with Dr. Scott Sillett, a wildlife ecologist at the Smithsonian,” Pesendorfer told Graduate Connections. The following summer, he received a smaller Smithsonian grad-student fellowship that included 10 weeks of research. Eager to expand on his fieldwork, he began working on a pre-doctoral fellowship application to spend an entire year at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center. “Right when I was finishing the application, we joined the Big Ten. The Committee on Institutional Cooperation (CIC) sent out an email for the CIC–Smithsonian Fellowship. I knew my odds were good, so I applied,” Mario said. He went on to explain that the advantage of applying for a CIC Smithsonian Fellowship was that each university only nominates one student. Six fellows are selected from a pool of thirteen. Pesendorfer’s application was sponsored by Scott Sillett at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center, which is located in the National Zoo in Washington, D.C. The fellowship was less of an independent project for Mario, and more of a collaboration with other institutions and researchers.

Working on his application, Mario drew on a number of resources. Faculty mentors Bond and Kamil read drafts and provided feedback, in addition to writing letters of recommendation. Staff in Biological Studies helped him put his application together, and Jane Schneider, Fellowship Coordinator, helped Mario organize and send off his application. Pesendorfor offered an important piece of advice: “They want to give you money, but they’re looking for ways to not have to read your application. Ms. Schneider was helpful in getting all the papers together and making sure it included only the information that was needed.

Mario will be finishing his fellowship at the Smithsonian Migratory Bird Center this fall. So what’s next? “I’m defending my dissertation on November 15,” Pesendorfer said, “and on January 1st, I’ll begin postdoctoral research at Cornell University. I’ll be working on oak masting (when oaks have a bumper crop of acorns) and scatter-hoarding (where an animal will store food in a number of places) in Jays. Mario chose to go to Cornell because it’s the leading place in the world for bird research. “It really goes to show that UNL graduate degree gets you where you want to go” he emphasized.