Miles Bensky joined the Illinois Natural History Survey (INHS)'s Sport Fish Ecology Lab in January as a postdoctoral researcher.
Miles majored in psychology as an undergraduate at the University of Washington. After graduating, he worked in Seattle for five years at a variety of jobs, including an outpatient psychiatric clinic case manager, a dog daycare supervisor, and a dog trainer/behavioral consultant intern. He also volunteered at the Woodland Park Zoo as a research assistant.
Miles then spent one year researching cat behavior as part of Nestle-Purina’s behavior team in Missouri. He went on to earn a master’s degree in psychology from the University of Texas - Austin while working with the Transportation Security Administration’s (TSA) bomb-detection puppy program and focusing on individual differences in dog behavior and cognition.
In 2013, Miles joined Dr. Alison Bell's lab as a PhD student in the University of Illinois's Program in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (PEEC). There he studied intraspecific variation in threespined stickleback's behavior and cognition. After graduating, he stayed on in the Bell Lab as a postdoc to develop protocols aimed at further exploring individual differences in behavioral flexibility in stickleback.
What are you looking forward to the most in your new role at INHS?
I am looking forward to learning to work with some new fish species as well as getting back to doing more applied research. Prior to my time as a graduate student at the University of Illinois, my research experience was more applied in nature. Previous projects ranged from developing behavioral measures aimed at identifying which puppies would most likely be successful in a working dog program to researching behavioral welfare in zoo animals.
How old were you when you first became interested in science and what sparked your interest? Who or what drew you to study animal behavior specifically?
I didn’t really think having a career in science and research until undergrad. I initially started college interested in becoming an architect, but an animal behavior course my sophomore year sparked my interest in studying why animals vary in how they behave and learn.
As an undergrad I read in my human personality course a research article by Dr. Sam Gosling, who later became my Master’s advisor, about animal personalities and this sparked my interest in trying to understand individual differences in behavior. Then as I worked with dogs, and got into animal training, I got interested in animal learning and cognition and combining these interests has been the focus of my research ever since.
What are common misconceptions about your career?
People in general seem to accept that companion animals have different personalities, but people are often still surprised when I talk about fish having personalities and that fish as small as stickleback can learn and be trained.
What are some challenges you’ve faced in your career?
Starting a family in the middle of grad school was definitely a challenge. Luckily, I have a very supportive family. Also, at first I found it a bit challenging to somewhat switch gears from a psychology background to a more biology focused program here at the U of I.
What advice would you give to future scientists?
This is more general than just for scientists, but don’t be afraid to just try things and be okay with failing. Also try not get too focused on just your specific research questions/areas of interest, and always try to broaden your perspective. Finally, always look for opportunities to learn new skills.