Tom Virzi, PhD
Research Director

Tom joined the Ecostudies team in 2014 as the principal investigator studying the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow in the Florida Everglades. Tom has conducted scientific research on the sparrow since earning his Ph.D. in Ecology and Evolution from Rutgers University in 2008 bringing to Ecostudies a wealth of knowledge about the species and its habitat requirements, and Everglades restoration. His research interests focus on studying the population ecology of threatened avian species, devoting particular attention to the effects of habitat restoration on bird populations.

Since coming to Ecostudies, Tom has helped develop Ecostudies’ research program on avian restoration ecology. One new project examines the effect of estuary restoration on bird populations in north Puget Sound, and another examines the use of conspecific attraction to influence the settlement of endangered Florida Grasshopper Sparrows into restored habitat in the dry prairies of central Florida.

Tom was previously the instructor of ornithology at Rutgers and always enjoyed bringing his passion for birds into the classroom. He maintains a philosophy that education is a critical component of scientific research that is often undervalued in its importance towards achieving conservation goals. Away from work, Tom is a true waterman spending his time surfing, kayaking and fishing.

tvirzi@ecoinst.org

Gary Slater
Senior Advisor and Research Associate

Gary founded Ecostudies in 2001, following a decade of working in South Florida.  He has worked to identify situations where Ecostudies’ knowledge, experience, and skills can be most effective towards advancing the conservation of birds and their habitats.

His current research focuses on the reintroduction ecology of passerine bird species, the wintering and stopover ecology of waterbirds, and the recovery of the endangered Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow in Everglades National Park. He currently serves on the Puget Sound Ecosystem Monitoring Program Bird Workgroup Committee.

Gary’s passion for birds began as a child watching chickadees at the family bird feeder. He received a B.S. in Wildlife Science from Purdue University and a M.S. in Wildlife Ecology from the University of Florida. Outside of the office, Gary enjoys spending time gardening, brewing beer, and hiking.

glslater@ecoinst.org

Suzanne Malakoff
Director of Finance and Operations

Suzanne joined Ecostudies Institute in 2015 to manage administration and communications for the organization. She brings with her over 15 years of business and nonprofit experience.

Prior to joining Ecostudies, Suzanne spent seven years serving as administrative director for the Northwest nonprofit, Climate Solutions. She played a key role in its transition from a project of an umbrella organization to an independent nonprofit and established many of the group’s internal systems and policies. She later moved into communications where she participated in program and organizational communications planning and strategy, managed the website and social media, and designed marketing and special events collateral.

In her spare time she grows veggies and herbs, writes essays, and gets outdoors as much as possible, whatever the weather. She holds a B.A. in Writing and Literature from Fairhaven College at Western Washington University.

smalakoff@ecoinst.org

Brandon Connare
Field Technician

Brandon is excited to be a part of Ecostudies Institute and to satisfy his indulgences in South Florida where he has joined the team working on the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow Project. He graduated from Binghamton University in 2012 with degrees in Biology and Environmental Science.

In the years since his graduation, he has worked on a number of avian research projects, including Mexican spotted owl surveys in New Mexico, nest searching for songbirds in Arizona and Hawaii, and fall migration banding in Michigan.  Brandon’s primary interest is in avian conservation, particularly of endangered species, which is what drew him to the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow Project.

Outside of work, Brandon enjoys traveling, nature, photography, and eating.

Michelle Davis
Wildlife Biologist

Michelle Davis joined Ecostudies Institute in 2014 to manage the fieldwork for the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow project in Everglades National Park. She brings nearly two decades of field experience with this species in this habitat, previously working with Dr. Julie Lockwood of Rutgers University and continuing to work with Dr. Tom Virzi at EI.

Michelle has been obsessed with birds from a very early age. She received a B. A. in Scientific Illustration from the University of California, Santa Cruz in 1990, and then spent the next decade working as a seasonal field technician on various bird projects across the US. She developed a particular interest in both passerine migration and hands-on management of threatened and endangered species. She also founded the Cape Florida Banding Station in 2002 to monitor fall landbird migration through South Florida, which has since banded over 25,000 birds.

When not working, Michelle can usually be found racing her Laser sailboat or puttering around in her orchid garden with a glass of wine.

Marla Koberstein
Field Technician

Marla joined Ecostudies Institute as a field technician to assist with monitoring the effects of estuary restoration on birds in north Puget Sound. She has ten years of field experience working on wildlife conservation and habitat restoration projects, and most recently finished a field season living and working on a seabird colony in the Gulf of Maine.  She has B.S. in Environmental and Conservation Biology from the University of Washington, and a Master’s in Coastal and Marine Management from the University of Akureyri, Iceland.

An Oregon native, Marla loves hiking in the Cascades, climbing, and writing about her adventures in the field.

Katie Leonard
Field Technician

Katie joined Ecostudies Institute as a field technician for the 2017 Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow project. She graduated from Southeast Missouri State University in 2013 with a major in Organismal, Ecological, and Evolutionary Biology.

Although interested in all organisms, her main interest is birds, which originated from learning and watching the various behaviors they exhibit. She has experience nest-searching and monitoring shorebirds in Florida, grassland species in Missouri, and forest birds in Australia. These experiences have increased her passion for understanding the reproductive ecology of passerine species, an interest she plans to pursue in graduate school in the future.

Katie spends most of her free time hiking, birding, walking her dog, and spending time with her friends and family. She is excited about the opportunity to work with Ecostudies and explore southern Florida.

Sean Murphy
Research Associate

Sean joined Ecostudies Institute in 2017 to work on the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow Project based the Florida Everglades. Prior to coming to Ecostudies, he spent six years working as a Wildlife Biologist for the U.S. Geological Survey-Forest and Rangeland Ecosystem Science Center. He received a B.S. in Biology from Penn State University and a Ph.D. in Biology from the City University of New York in 2010.

Sean’s research interests focus on the interactions between avian populations and their environment. He has studied bird populations along the Atlantic and Pacific Coasts as well as the Interior West. At Ecostudies Institute, he will help develop a spatially-explicit population estimator for the endangered Cape Sable seaside sparrow using long-term survey data and new survey protocols to be recommended to agency partners to modify and improve current methods.

Sean spends most of his free time with his wife and two young daughters. He enjoys hiking, biking, and birding.

Leah Rensel
Field Technician

Leah is biologist who is monitoring the effect of estuary restoration on birds in Snohomish and Skagit County, Washington. She also organizes citizen science outreach in Washington, including the Leque Island bird surveys and Puget Sound Shorebird Count.

She got her start in wildlife science volunteering for the Washington Department of Fish and Wildlife and has worked for various environmental agencies and organizations all over the west.  She has chased birds for fun and science from the tip of Alaska to the Mexican Border. In 2013, she earned a B.S. in Biology from Linfield College.

Leah is an avid skier, adventurer and musician. She currently sings with the Skagit Cantabile Choir and loves attending art museums across the world

David Tafoya
Field Technician

David grew up in Southern California and has always felt pulled outdoors by his amazement with the natural world. In 2011 he graduated from California State University of San Bernardino with a B.S. in Biology with an emphasis on ecology and evolution. Since then he has been fortunate enough to participate in a number of different conservation research programs, including banding albatross in Hawaii and radio tracking king cobras in Thailand. He also spent two years working in South Florida and has now returned to the Everglades, this time to work on the Cape Sable Seaside Sparrow Project.

In his spare time, when he’s not out birding, David enjoys gardening, woodworking, and other crafts.