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Organismal Biology and Ecology Graduate Program

The graduate program in Organismal Biology and Ecology (OBE) has an outstanding record of scholarship, student training, international collaboration and public outreach.  In terms of research quality, determined from faculty publications, citation rates, grants and awards, the National Research Council ranks OBE in the top ten programs nationally, alongside Harvard, Princeton, Duke and Stanford.   The OBE program in 2013 was recognized by the University of Montana as being a Program of National Distinction (PoND).  This honor comes with a substantial investment in new opportunities for graduate students in OBE, working to achieve two of the major themes of the University’s 2020 Strategic Plan by promoting: (1) Discovery and Creativity to Serve Montana and the World and (2) a Dynamic Learning Environment Using Experiential Learning.  

Please click here for information about OBE Policies and Procedures.

Apply to OBE

How to Apply to OBE

To apply, you must fill out the online application to the Graduate School at the University of Montana ($60 fee). That application asks for a variety of information about your academic history, names of reference letter writers, GRE and TOEFL scores, and resume/CV. In that application, you will also upload a Statement of Purpose (1 - 2 pages). This is a key document that we use to evaluate applicants, and it should focus on your research vision for what you will do in graduate school and beyond. Finally, you will also be asked to provide a “writing sample.” For this sample, we ask that you upload a first-authored scientific paper, if you have one; if not, please do not upload anything in that field.

Because of the difficulty in obtaining and distributing electronic copies of transcripts, you should send paper copies directly to the address below. In addition, if your letter writers prefer to send paper letters, they can send them to this address (rather than submitting them electronically through the graduate school, which we prefer).

Division of Biological Sciences
The University of Montana
Health Sciences 104
32 Campus Drive #4824
Missoula, MT 59812-4824


Students must apply by January 10th to be considered for admission during the following fall semester. Admission at other times is possible but strongly discouraged. Between the deadline and February 15th, the Graduate Admissions Committee reviews all applications and notifies students of their status as soon as possible afterward.


OBE guarantees incoming PhD students five years of support and incoming Masters students two years of support, pending satisfactory progress. This support can take the form of teaching assistantships (TAs), research assistantships (RAs), fellowships obtained by the student, or a mix.

Admissions Criteria

Admission to the graduate program is competitive and based primarily on research experience, papers published, letters of recommendation, statement of purpose, and, to a lesser extent, Graduate Record Exam scores (general exam only) and GPA. Students admitted into OBE usually far exceed the minimum requirements specified by the Graduate School. OBE requires a minimal GPA of 3.0 in undergraduate coursework in biology and a minimal score of the 60th percentile in each of the three sections of the GRE (verbal, quantitative, and analytical). Also, before admission, a prospective student must have a faculty member agree to serve as his or her advisor. Thus, students should contact faculty directly before or during the application procedure. Those whose first language is not English must score better than 580 on the paper-based or 90 on the internet-based (iBT) TOEFL exam.

Faculty and Student Training

OBE professors are among the nation’s elite faculties in Ecology & Evolution.  In terms of research quality, determined from faculty publications, citation rates, grants and awards, the National Research Council ranks OBE in the top ten of more than 100 programs, toe-to-toe with Harvard, Princeton, Duke and Stanford. This ranking was based on productivity through 2007, yet OBE research output has increased dramatically since then. For example, the NRC based their ranking on an estimate of 1.3 peer-reviewed papers per year per faculty member.  However, from 2007 to 2012 OBE faculty published an average of 4.3 papers per person per year. This exceptional productivity is also manifest in the impact of our work, as reflected through citations of our papers.  In 2006, Trends in Ecology & Evolution published the H-indices of Associate Editors of the world’s most important journals for ecology and evolution, who represent leaders in the fields covered by OBE.  When the H-index scores of OBE faculty are overlaid on this graph, it is apparent that OBE faculty dramatically exceed even this academic elite.   Collectively, OBE faculty have been cited more than 61,000 times!

Graph showing OBE Faculty H-Index Value

Figure 1. OBE faculty out-perform world leaders in ecology & evolution. H-index, a measure of research impact, plotted as a function of academic age for associate editors of prestigious journals in ecology and evolution (gray) and OBE faculty (blue)

The H-index is only one metric of research productivity, and does not account for where scientists publish.  OBE faculty probably rank even higher in the context of this metric, having published 67 papers in Nature, Science, and the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, the three leading journals of all scientific inquiry.  For example, Science recently featured a cover article on Doug Emlen’s research into the development and evolution of elaborate animal weapons.  In the last ten years, current faculty, graduate, and undergraduate researchers have published 42 papers in this prestigious journal and the journal with the highest citation index, Nature.  Publications in these journals by Ragan Callaway on the biology of invasive plants reach 800 citations apiece. This places the impact of his work among the highest in the entire field of ecology and evolutionary biology.

Cover of Science August 2012 featuring Horned BeetleFigure 2. OBE faculty on the cover of Science. Doug Emlen’s work on the elaborate weapons of horned beetles received international attention in August 2012. 

OBE faculty have received a large number of national and international awards.  Just to note the most prestigious, four OBE faculty are elected members of AAAS and one received the first Presidential Early Career Award ever presented to a researcher in the State of Montana.  OBE faculty have received four Fulbright Fellowships, the Society of Conservation Biology Lifetime Achievement Award, four National Science Foundation CAREER Awards, the American Fisheries Society’s 2011 Award of Excellence, the 2010 AAAS Newcomb Cleveland Prize, the Slobotkin Award, and the Grodzinsky Award.  One OBE faculty member served as the President of the American Genetic Association, and OBE faculty currently serve or have served as editors of more than 20 journals. Finally, research by OBE faculty consistently generates extraordinary interest by the general public, with more than 600 stories appearing in top national and international media outlets, such as The New York Times, National Geographic, Smithsonian, Discover, NPR, and USA Today; all of these showcase the University of Montana and contribute to a national awareness of cutting edge research conducted at this institution.

Crucially, OBE faculty scholarship has an extensive international component.  In the past five years alone, OBE faculty have published 140 peer-reviewed papers with authors from other countries, 192 papers involving research in a different country, and in total these papers included 252 different international authors.  This coincides with well over 200 international visits made by OBE faculty during their careers, hosting more than 90 visiting scholars from other countries, and training doctoral students from Argentina, Ireland, Italy, Mexico, Peru, Poland, and Russia. This international influence not only identifies OBE as a Program of National Distinction at UM, but places OBE among the campus leaders in the execution of a major component of The University of Montana’s Strategic Plan 2012-2020 and Global Learning Initiative.

All OBE faculty secure external funding for their research; as part of the Division of Biological Sciences, OBE enjoys the second highest level of funding of any program on campus.  During their careers, current OBE faculty have brought in over 240 competitive, external grants, at an average of 23 grants per person.  We are confident we can sustain this level of scholarship, as the five academically youngest faculty in OBE are all exceptional  -- far above the H-index regression line in Figure 1, and already successful at securing competitive external grants (e.g., Jeff Good was just awarded two NSF grants and a NIH RO1 award). 

Student Quality

Our students are world class.  We compete each year with the very best programs in the world, and the students we successfully recruit have the highest Graduate Record Exam (GRE) scores of any program at UM. Most of our students support their research with extremely competitive external grants; five current students have full-time funding as fellows of the NSF, NASA or the National Academy of Sciences. These outstanding students are deeply invested in experiential learning:  they teach student-centered, investigative laboratories and discussion sessions; they peer-lead graduate reading seminars, and their independent, novel research permits each to graduate authoring multiple publications in major scientific journals.

Recent PhD (2013) Ashley Heers is an excellent case study. With a NSF Graduate Research Fellowship in hand, she had offers to enroll at UC Berkeley, Brown University and Harvard University.  She chose to come to UM because the research program and her advisors, Ken Dial and Bret Tobalske, were best suited to her plan to use bird development and biomechanics to better understand the evolution of flight capacity in dinosaurs.  Research grants including a Doctoral Dissertation Improvement Grant from NSF provided funds for her to then travel to Brown and Harvard to complete aspects of her work using resources not available at UM.  While completing her research, Ashley published (as lead author) a significant review in Trends in Ecology and Evolution and three additional peer-reviewed articles.  She was awarded a prestigiouis NSF post-doctoral fellowship to study at the the Royal Veterinary College in the UK.

Doctoral student Ashley Heers uses a laser system to study aerodynamics in bird locomotion.

OBE students are world class.  Doctoral student Ashley Heers uses a laser system to study aerodynamics in bird locomotion to improve understanding of similar capacities in the ancestors of birds, dinosaurs.

Ashley is an extraordinary scientist, but she is far from the only OBE student with such a trajectory. Over the past 10 years, many of our graduate students have been awarded prestigious national and international fellowships, including awards from the National Science Foundation (Graduate Research Fellowships, 11 students), NASA (4 students), Environmental Protection Agency (EPA-STAR, 2 students), the Organization for American States  (OAS) (1 student), and the USDA (2 students). These and other fellowships (e.g. NSF-EPSCoR, NSF-IGERT Montana Ecology of Infectious Disease, PEO), have provided a total of $2,258,300 in fellowship support over the past 10 years, for a total of 153 semesters funding via fellowships. Although the proportion of NSF-funded students fluctuates over time, in the recent past approximately 20% of OBE students have been supported via NSF pre-doctoral fellowships, an astounding proportion that is virtually un-matched anywhere else in the U.S.  In addition to fellowship support, which covers tuition and living expenses, we encourage our students to seek independent funding for their research as part of their training.  In the past decade, our students have been awarded a total of $1,146,665 in research grants from completely student-driven proposals to a variety of competitive funding sources.

Arguably the best indicator of the quality of education received in the OBE graduate program is the professional placement of our students. Over 96% of our students are currently employed in sectors related to biology.  Most importantly for the legacy of UM as an academic institution that produces world-class independent researchers, 30% of our students currently hold highly competitive tenure track university positions, and another 20% hold research positions in government agencies.All students in OBE present results of their research at national and international meetings.  Averaging between one and two meetings per year, recent students have presented at 126 national and 34 international conferences.  Erin McCullough was recently awarded honorable mention for her presentation and the annual international meeting for The Society for the Study of Evolution; her related presentation at the international meeting of the Society for Integrative Biology was featured in the news section of Science and on National Public Radio’s Science Friday.  Ashley Heer’s (Figure 3) presentation at the Society for Vertebrate Paleontology was also featured in a perspective in Science.   Even more important for the ultimate progress of knowledge, our students are highly productive in terms of the number and quality of their publications. Our students have produced a total of 217 peer-reviewed publications, including papers in the most prestigious journals such as Science (2), Nature (4), Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences (2), and the highest ranked journals in ecology and evolution: Trends in Ecology and Evolution, American Naturalist, and Public Library of Science (PLoS) One.  This publication rate is equivalent to approximately 3 peer-reviewed publications per student when including MS students, or 4.5 peer-reviewed published papers per PhD student.

Arguably the best indicator of the quality of education received in the OBE graduate program is the professional placement of our students. Over 96% of our students are currently employed in sectors related to biology.  Most importantly for the legacy of UM as an academic institution that produces world-class independent researchers, 30% of our students currently hold highly competitive tenure track university positions, and another 20% hold research positions in government agencies.

International Education and Research Collaboration

Map Illustrating the Global Reach of OBE, showing locations visited by OBE Faculty and origins of outside scholars visiting OBE.

Figure 1. Global reach of OBE. Faculty and students from OBE teach and conduct research worldwide (red lines).  They also attract visitors from other countries.  Foreign faculty and students converge upon UM and Montana to work with members of OBE ((yellow lines).

The natural areas of Montana provide an exquisite and unique stage for biological research that attracts international collaborators at all levels of training, from undergraduate interns on semester exchanges to professors on sabbatical leave. OBE faculty have established a worldwide, collaborative network of research and teaching (Figure 1). Faculty members interact regularly with colleagues in every continent - even Antarctica. OBE research projects range from mountains in Bhutan and Borneo to the permafrost of northern Canada, from the jungles of Venezuela to steppes in Eastern Europe. We teach field courses in Peru and Chile, and hold video courses linking students at UM with students in New Zealand. OBE through the Division of Biological Sciences has established international partnerships (formal agreements) with institutions in Taiwan, Spain, and Peru, and OBE faculty have taught as well as taken sabbaticals at these institutions. The gemstone of our international teaching effort is Ken Dial’s biennial Ecology of Africa course. For more than 20 years, our students have immersed themselves for a month in the biological extravaganza that is Tanzania (case study 1, below).

Case Study 1: A 25-year History in Africa is Expanding

Case Study 1 Ken Dial, Elephant on Tanzanian Plains

Case Study 1 , Ken Dial, Tanzanians Though ecology has been the focus, the immersion students and faculty receive in the culture of central eastern Africa has left a lasting impression on all involved. Through this course Ken has challenged students to return to the continent in order to stimulate the local economy and help preserve their natural resources. Ken and his wife Karen have recently founde
d a non-profit organization, Friends of Tanzanian Communities, promoting conservation, education, and empowerment for women, in areas adjacent to national wildlife parks and reserves, and Ken now serves on their board of directors.Since arriving at UM in 1988, Ken Dial has continued to expand his involvement in bringing Africa to students and faculty at UM, directing bi-yearly trips to the Serengeti for graduate ecological studies, to date introducing over 400 Montanans to this unique region.

Through long-term research projects and workshops offered to international scientists, we are helping to influence policy decisions in many countries; such efforts are occurring in Bhutan, Mexico, Spain, Peru, Mongolia, Kazbegi-Georgia, Mexico, Russia, and Malaysia. Faculty and students from 24 countries have come to UM to work with OBE faculty. Ray Callaway has led this effort focusing on alpine plant ecology (case study 2). 

Professor Ray Callaway and Student against snowcapped mountain backdrop.

Case Study 2: Bringing Montana and the World Together 

Professor Ray Callaway inspects plant growth in field.From China to Brazil, Denmark to Scotland, and 15 other countries in between, Dr. Ray Callaway has brought his ecological studies to the world’s attention, bringing international teams of scientists together to study alpine ecology in over 20 countries on four continents. Garnering support from the National Science Foundation, the Civilian Research and Development foundation, National Geographic, and a variety of European sources, he leads this team, stitching together a global picture of this unique ecological zone. Ray recently helped the Finnish government evaluate the status of ecology and evolution at all research institutions in Finland; he chaired a workshop in Kazbegi, Georgia, advancing science in the Caucasus region; he worked with the Chilean government to develop plant ecological studies in Chile; and he organized a working group of scientists from 12 countries to investigate mechanisms driving exotic plant invasions in North America, South America, and Australia. Ray epitomizes the global reach of OBE.

Local Outreach

An important aspect of OBE involves local, state and regional outreach.  We are particularly proud of the UM Conservation Nursery and Nature Adventure Garden, directed by staff member Marilyn Marler and housed at the Field Research Station at Fort Missoula.  This effort involves active participation in research and experiential learning for people ranging in age from kindergarten to retirement as they learn about conservation, invasive –plant biology and native-plant restoration.

Photographs of the UM Conservation Nursery, Nature Adventure Garden and a student group examining native plants in the field.

Marilyn Marler implements integrated land management on UM property with education and outreach housed at the Field Research Station at Fort Missoula.  Her Nature Adventure Garden is an outdoor classroom used for summer science day camps, high-school classes, and workshops.


Graphics, Design, and Layout by Spectral Fusion Designs, 2013.