SNR grad Gabel earned Chancellor’s Scholars award one 4.0 semester at a time

University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources fisheries and wildlife graduate Robert Gabel has been honored with a Chancellor’s Award for completing his undergraduate degree with a 4.0 GPA. Courtesy Robert Gabel
University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources fisheries and wildlife graduate Robert Gabel has been honored with a Chancellor’s Award for completing his undergraduate degree with a 4.0 GPA. Courtesy Robert Gabel

When Robert Gabel enrolled at the University of Nebraska-Lincoln School of Natural Resources, he didn’t know that he would spend his years here in successful pursuit of a 4.0 grade point average.

“It was not a goal, but then my first semester of freshman year, I got a 4.0,” he said. “At that point, I'd already started, so I thought I might as well continue.”

Gabel graduated in August with a perfect GPA, earning him one of two university-wide Chancellor’s Scholars awards issued that semester. The honor will be listed in the August 2020 Commencement program that will be available at on Aug. 15.

While Gabel didn’t begin his college career with eyes on a 4.0, he did know what he wanted to do once he earned his diploma. Starting in seventh grade, Gabel began volunteering at Omaha’s Henry Doorly Zoo & Aquarium. There, staff taught him about biological artifacts that he and other school-age volunteers would teach visitors about. (If you’ve visited the zoo, you’ve likely seen such students giving presentations while wearing the zoo’s trademark blue shirts.) Volunteers who excelled at that responsibility could apply to assist zookeepers, Gabel said.

“I did that and I started working with the bird crew there my junior year, and it was awesome. I loved it, and I fell in love with zookeeping," Gabel said. “I 100% would love to be a bird keeper at a zoo.”

Gabel’s time volunteering at the Omaha Zoo coincided with Elyse Watson’s time there on the staff. When Watson left the zoo to become SNR’s recruitment and alumni coordinator, Gabel was one of several high school students in the zoo’s volunteer program who she encouraged to enroll at SNR.

“Zoo Crew youth volunteers, like Rob, were so passionate about caring for animals and conservation efforts, it just made sense to present those students with the opportunity to get a degree in fisheries and wildlife,” Watson said. “As a school, we’ve been really lucky to have so many all-star students find their home with us.”

Gabel arrived at UNL in the fall of 2017 and started acing his classes. Each successive 4.0 semester built more pressure inside him, he said, and he considered dropping out of the University Honors Program to ensure his success. After all, he was planning on graduating early, carrying a heavy class load to do so and didn’t want to pursue a research-driven career.

“But Elyse yelled across the lobby of SNR (one day) and was like, ‘Hey Larkin, do you want Rob as a thesis student?’” Gabel recalled.

SNR professor Larkin Powell jumped at the chance, and Gabel was convinced to put the extra work in. Together, they developed a research project that placed Gabel in the environment where he thrived, a zoo.

Gabel’s research focused on the feeding habits of the penguin population at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo. In the wild, penguins don't follow buffet line rules. It's a frenzy when they encounter a school of fish, Gabel said. In captivity, it's a different story.

“What I found is it is not random,” he said.

Gabel said that when you’re feeding penguins, you “kind of get the vibe” that certain penguins get first dibs on fish. Sometimes, the keepers influence that choice. But in his study, he controlled for the zookeepers and found that a couple of penguins -- Arnie, a male, and Uhura, a female -- ate at the beginning of the feed before the others partook.

“He designed his sampling scheme for behavior of penguins during feeding time, and then designed a very unique way to analyze the ranked data,” Powell said. “Rob certainly was innovative and thorough in how he approached this research project. And, he was able to show that there were a couple penguins at the zoo that tend to be a little more bossy and pushy when it comes to getting their fish first during feedings!”

Along with his zoo-based thesis project, Gabel spent much of his time at UNL SNR in the field and abroad. His experience at the Cedar Point Biological Station was among his favorites.

“It’s absolutely amazing,” he said.

He studied in the rainforest, Galapagos Islands and Andes mountains while spending a semester in Ecuador. And while on East Campus, he worked with professors on coursework and skills that will make him stand out in a crowded field of prospective zookeepers. With herpetologist Dennis Ferraro, for instance, Gabel completed a one-on-one venom certification training program, “so now I’m certified to work with venomous reptiles,” Gabel said.

Currently, Gabel is working as a zookeeper’s apprentice at the Lincoln Children’s Zoo while applying for full-time positions. Powell said that the zoo that brings Gabel on will be bringing a goal-oriented, curious and talented Nebraska alum on board.

“Rob is focused and thoughtful, and it will be fun to watch him go out and do great things for our world,” Powell said.

-Cory Matteson, SNR communications