Seeking discovery

January 4, 2018

by Carly Gilmore, Class of 2017

While some students wait until after their education to dive into fieldwork, Nampa native Austin Reich has done no such thing. Within the past five years, Austin has recorded exotic frog calls in Costa Rica, led educational tours at the zoo, cared for various animals, and lectured on his research and other scientific topics to varying audiences.

“I am always incredibly grateful for an experience that is unknown to many students my age,” commented Austin. As a junior, he is working on his fifth year volunteering as a zoo naturalist at Zoo Boise and third year working as head animal teaching assistant (TA) for NNU’s Department of Biology. He also conducts research with Dr. Cossel, biology professor and department chair, which has included two summers of fieldwork in Costa Rica.

Aspiring to be a biologist early on, Austin started volunteering at the zoo as a zoo naturalist in high school. While he does help care for the animals when needed, Austin’s primary responsibility is educating visitors about animals and ongoing projects. “It’s always fun to teach, especially kids,” Austin grinned. “It’s fun to see kids’ faces light up because they’ve never seen exhibits like this.”

Coming to NNU in 2015, two years after starting at the zoo, Austin jumped right into the opportunities available on campus. In addition to playing in Jazz Renaissance and Concert Band and studying biology and professional writing, he volunteered at the Department of Biology’s open house, presenting NNU’s animals, which led to his position as head animal TA.

As head animal TA, Austin is in charge of the care of NNU’s 40 animals—six snakes, one monitor lizard, seven salamanders, one tarantula and 25 frogs—and the biology education outreach program. For the education outreach, he organizes visits to schools, sets up lesson plans and presents to students. Lessons vary from explaining the scientific method, sharing Dr. Cossel’s research in Costa Rica, and teaching different aspects of ecology and biology while showing NNU’s animals to the class.

For the last two years, Austin has also conducted research with Dr. Cossel in Costa Rica on frog bioacoustics: studying frog calls that haven’t been described in science or whose meaning is unknown. “My favorite part about doing research is discovering what nobody has discovered before,” said Austin. “I remember specifically one time when I was getting video of a frog calling, and Doc afterwards told me that we were possibly the first people to have seen this frog call, and I was the only person in the world at the moment to have video of this frog calling.”

After doing field research in Costa Rica, Austin and his team returned to campus, where they processed and analyzed the data they acquired. They then wrote articles about their research to be published in journals or books.

“I can guarantee this experience will be beneficial to me,” he remarked. “Undergrad research is very rare and sometimes even nonexistent for many undergrads. Already I have given talks at the Boise zoo as well as a few middle schools about my research. I’ve also attended the Murdock conference, where I presented my research. These great opportunities look incredible on resumes for grad school and employers.”

Advising other students to get involved, Austin added, “Ask to help. Professors here are more than willing to accept your help; they just need to know you’re willing. And then that just builds upon itself, and you get more and more opportunities.”

As the end of his college years approaches, Austin plans to continue his education in ecology at the graduate level and pursue opportunities to live out his passion.

Photo caption: Austin and Mr. T, NNU's argentine tegu, take their daily walk on the campus quad.