Paul Banko

USGS Pacific Island Ecosystems Research Center
Wildlife Biologist
High School Attended
Hilo High School
College Attended
University of Washington - BS (1972)
Graduate Training
University of Washington - Ph.D. (1988)

Paul Banko

Job Description:

I create and manage research projects that I think might help conservation in Hawaii. My focus is mainly on birds, especially endangered species. Understanding how feeding specialization evolved and how it makes species vulnerable to extinction is of special interest to me because it allows me to think about how birds relate to their food resources and habitats. I also am interested in historical patterns and trends in the decline of Hawaiian bird populations. Developing strategies and techniques for restoring bird populations and habitats is a major goal of much of my work.

Interest in Field:

I accompanied my father, Win, on field trips. Our first major trip was into Kipahulu Valley, Maui, when I was in high school. Together, we saw several rare species, and he saw the nukupuu, a small green forest bird with a short, curved bill that was thought to have been extinct. Later, after graduating from college, we worked together to survey the Big Island for alala (Hawaiian crow), which were declining rapidly in the wild. We brought the first young crows into captivity for captive breeding, and I was put in charge of their care initially.

How did you get there?

Gaining experience in the field was most important. I was lucky in having a parent who already was doing what I thought I would like to do. There were few opportunities then for volunteering with individuals and organizations to gain more experience, but today there are many more. I did seek out faculty in college for independent studies, which increased my time with professors and graduate students. This broadened my perspectives about ideas for my own career. I also took low-paying jobs, when available, just to expand my experience and job contacts. Although working in a variety of low-level positions was mainly how I developed my career, it was necessary to advance my education and complete graduate studies. One of the biggest benefits of graduate school was meeting other graduate students and learning about their projects and their successes and failures.

Necessary Qualifications:

A PhD is useful to be able to write proposals to secure funding for projects, but I supervise others with Master’s degrees who do much of what I do (and they have fewer administrative responsibilities!). Completing an advanced degree is also essential for analyzing data and writing scientific reports, all of which are necessary for the work to be taken seriously and to attract funding and talented staff. Nevertheless, I did not race to complete my advanced degree because I was generally satisfied with the work I could get with my BS degree.

Rewards of Work:

The most satisfaction I get is from applying my experience and skills to help conserve Hawaiian birds and their habitats. However, most of my work is long-term and short-term gratification is rare. I also like working with many of the many other people in my field. Sharing information and views with a variety of people provides stimulation and helps spur creativity.

Relevant Work Experience:

My first real job fresh out of high school was working in fruit orchards in eastern Washington and working on a railroad construction gang. I was fortunate in not having to work fulltime while going to college, but I managed to find summer jobs and occasional work as a student assistant.

Past jobs during college included guarding streams to prevent poaching and tagging salmon in Alaska; working at the university experimental forest, digitizing data for a graduate student in civil engineering; and helping another civil engineering graduate student with his municipal sewage sludge project.

After college, I worked odd-jobs at Hawaiʻi Volcanoes National Park rehabilitating the herbarium, maintaining the Park’s pig dogs, controlling invasive weeds (fire tree), and removing feral goats and pigs. My first breakthrough came when I was offered an opportunity to help develop the Park’s nene restoration program. I also applied for small grants (World Wildlife Fund, US Forest Service) that allowed me to survey alala.

As a graduate student, when I was not studying nene breeding ecology, I worked on-and-off as a biological technician for the Park biologist studying rat and pig ecology and control and assisting in various field surveys on Hawaii and Maui. I also worked with an entomology graduate student for a summer on Mt. St. Helens to monitor arthropod recovery one year after the eruption. My expenses were paid to help two marine biology graduate students with their research projects in Alaska and the Caribbean.

After completing my PhD, I took a job with US Fish and Wildlife Service. The job was with the recently-started palila research project and paid relatively little. Eventually, however, funding improved, I became eligible for a higher-salaried position, and palila became the long-term research subject of my career. I also became involved again with Alala research and restoration, about 13 years after completing field surveys with my father. Although I didn’t know it at the time, my first job as a PhD was to lead to a varied and satisfying career in conservation biology.

Typical Day:

My time now is largely spent administering research projects so that staff can do the work in the field that I used to do myself. This involves applying for funding, applying for permits, writing reports, and accounting for all the expenditures and mundane activities that comprise a project. Because the main goal of my research is to improve the prospects for the survival of endangered bird species, I talk frequently and at length to regulators and management biologists who decide what official actions will be taken to resolve land use conflicts and other competing interests.

I also spend a lot of time discussing research design and analysis with staff so we can properly collect and interpret data to answer the questions that are important to conservation. When the day is not entirely filled with email, phone calls, meetings, and “administrivia,” I spend what time is left writing papers for publication in scientific journals and books so that lessons learned and other information is available to managers, researchers, teachers, students, and the general public. Another important activity is reviewing manuscripts and proposals written by other researchers to ensure that scientific standards have been set high.

Words of Wisdom :

You wish you knew...:

You eventually will have an impact if you pay attention, ask questions, listen carefully, and learn.

You wish you were told...:

Although technical and scientific abilities are important, you must develop good communication and interpersonal skills to be effective in your career.

Final Comments / Advice:

There are many paths to your goal. Be influenced in your career choices more by interest and ideas than by money and prestige.