Much of the studying at a university happens inside a classroom or library, but one Spring Biology graduate at The University of New Mexico, learned most outdoors.

Simon Doneski recently completed a Bachelor of Science in Biology and plans to continue studying for a Master of Science in Biology in the Fall at UNM, where he will help develop a list of New Mexico’s rare, threatened and endangered insects with the Arthropods Division at the Museum of Southwestern Biology. 

Doneski has been interested in nature for as long as he can remember and decided in high school he wanted to study biology.

“I’ve always been fascinated with insects and I grew up in New Hampshire, so there was little to do but be fascinated by the outside,” Doneski said. “I spent a lot of time outside looking at cool things with my sister.”

Even with a strong interest in Biology, Doneski decided to take a gap year after high school to learn about the careers available to him through a service year with AmeriCorps. When it came time for him to think about college, a friend told him about the Museum of Southwestern Biology located on the UNM campus. A tour of the facility, with its extensive collections, databases, and staff expertise, and a conversation with the museum’s director secured his decision to attend the University and study Biology. Working at the museum as an undergraduate museum technician in the Division of Mammals and, later, the Division of Arthropods has given him a chance to better understand how biologists work and what goes into keeping a museum operating.

Doneski on a trip with The Lobo Life.

Doneski has also made connections with like-minded students through involvement with student organizations and the Outdoor Adventure Center. The Lobo Life, a student group that travels the state and shares their experiences in an online blog, gave him the ability to explore the New Mexico wilderness and meet a group of friends who loved outdoor exploration. Doneski also worked for the Outdoor Adventure Center for four years, helping rent affordable outdoor equipment to students and even leading some trips to the outdoors, even teaching a group how to cross-country ski in the Sandia Mountains earlier this year. He also serves as president for UNM Wilderness Alliance, a student advocacy group that promotes the protection of public lands and takes hiking trips. His time spent with each organization helped him fall in love with New Mexico. Some of his favorite areas in the state are the Bisti Badlands, the Jemez Mountains, and the Gila National Forest.

Making the most of his time studying at UNM meant seizing every possible opportunity  to learn new skills and spend time in nature. He even spent a year as a resident advisor for the Outdoor Living and Environmental Learners Living Learning Community.

Doneski encourages students to explore every possibility by joining student organizations, asking professors questions about their work and finding ways to get more plugged in.

“There are so many opportunities here that aren’t necessarily handed out on a silver platter, but they are there if you go and reach for them,” Doneski said. “That’s been the whole story of my Biology career here … People are really nice here and really supportive of students as long as you go out and ask and try to get involved.”

During his winter break, Doneski traveled in a study abroad group with Professor Kelly Miller to Kenya. Miller was teaching a course on

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Professor Kelly Miller's Winter 2022 study abroad group in Kenya.

insects and the connections between art and the biological world. In Kenya, students were able to discuss ecology, visit safaris and meet with local conservationists and indigenous people to learn about the work being done to preserve the natural world. 

“I’m really thankful to the Biology Department and UNM for having those opportunities for students,” he said.

Each trip and adventure throughout his time studying for his bachelor’s degree secured his love for the outside world and its inhabitants, especially the smallest ones. He’s looking forward to devoting his master’s studies to aiding insect conservation in the state.

“Insects are the foundation of so many food webs,” Doneski said. “Without the protection of insects other animals can’t live, and they provide such important ecosystem services like pollination.”

In some ways, Doneski’s academic interest in insects happened by accident. In high school, Doneski tried to get involved with field work at the New Hampshire Fish and Game Department. He called and emailed repeatedly to see if he could somehow engage with a bald eagle project they had. Eventually someone got back to him with an alternative: Butterfly conservation. He decided to give it a try.

“I checked it out and I was immediately fascinated and in love with it. It started an obsession,” Doneski said while laughing.

Doneski during a previous summer with the Pollinator Lab in New Hampshire.

The New Hampshire Fish and Game Pollinator Lab assists with conservation efforts by raising butterflies and releasing them into the wild. Doneksi compared it to a more intense, research-focused and strategic version of the butterfly units students sometimes participate in during elementary school. He’s returned to New Hampshire to work for the lab every summer throughout college and now, with the skills he’s developed at UNM, he’ll make the trip back to run the lab before he begins his master’s degree.

Doneski is grateful to his mentors at UNM, David Lightfoot, Lee Taylor, Kelly Miller and Joe Cook, who have  helped him develop a skill set to continue Biology research. UNM has given him unique opportunities to learn and participate in work that has real impact.

“It’s cool to be at a public university where so much important science is happening and where there is so much student involvement in that important science.”