University of Minnesota
University of Minnesota
College of Biological Sciences
http://www.cbs.umn.edu/

Populist science

Bob Zink brings his unique background as an academic and an outdoorsman to the pages of popular science publications.

Bob Zink drives a late model Chevy Silverado to work from his home in Grant Township. His best friend is a garbage collector. And, in his free time, he bow-hunts, raises two teen-aged boys and spends time fishing and bird hunting with the family’s pointing dogs.He also happens to be a world-renowned expert on the study of speciation in birds, and a professor in the Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior.

Zink’s appointment at the University includes the Breckenridge Chair in Ornithology at the Bell Museum of Natural History.

A top scholar, researcher and sought-after instructor, the demands on Zink’s time are many. But his contribution extends well beyond the classroom and the lab. He is also involved with Project Bird Safe, a regional volunteer effort spearheaded by Audubon Minnesota aimed at reducing the number of birds killed or injured as a result of collisions with buildings.

The scholar has always felt a connection with the citizens who support the University’s teaching and research efforts. 

“I feel a strong obligation to give back to the public, a sense of responsibility to let the taxpayer know what’s happening with their tax dollars,” he says.  He fulfills that obligation by writing popular outdoor columns for the general public—a practice that combines his uncanny ability to relate to the non-scientist his passion for the natural world.

Since 2009, Zink has been a regular columnist in Outdoor News, a weekly newspaper targeted to sportsmen. Editor Rob Drieslein says Zink’s been a hit from the start: “On top of all his academic credentials, Bob has a sense of humor that comes through in his choice of subjects, as well as tone and delivery. He can turn a phrase and offer in-depth insights and questions into a wildlife management question, yet he's still very methodical and logical in his delivery. The fact that he's an avid hunter doesn't hurt in making his opinions and insights legitimate to my readers.”

Zink’s passion for communicating the marvels of nature shines through in his articles. He picks his subjects for their news worthiness, as well as for the “gee whiz” factor. Recent articles have focused on the little-known moaning behavior in amorous female moose, the tendency for herds of deer and cattle to align themselves along magnetic north, and an evolutionary perspective on how climate change affected the distribution of wild turkeys.

He also tackles potentially hot-button issues with perspective and empathy. In a recent story on the fate of the once-abundant, now extinct Eskimo Curlew, Zink illustrates how unregulated hunting can push a species beyond the brink. And in an article on the early 20th-century practice of loon hunting, Zink straddles his dual role as academic and outdoorsman, saying “… it’s hard for me, not having been part of the local culture at that time and place, to pass judgment from afar. I’m glad to have read about the tradition, and glad it’s ended. Nothing adds more to my northern Minnesota experience than the sounds of loons.” 

Zink’s columns have also appeared in American Waterfowler and the Star Tribune.

Hunting and fishing are cherished traditions to many Minnesotans, with nearly one in every 10 adults holding a deer-hunting license.  Zink believes they’re an audience that appreciates hearing about scientific discoveries in a not-too-science-dense way.  “I speak the hunter’s language and I understand the appeal of hunting and what the journey is all about,” he says. “Because of that, I think I can put scientific thoughts, ideas and findings together in a way the hunter—and the non-scientist—can relate to.”

 

“I feel a strong obligation to give back to the public, a sense of responsibility to let the taxpayer know what’s happening with their tax dollars.”

– Bob Zink