Remembering Brian Palestis

Remembering Brian Palestis

Brian Palestis

It is with great sadness that we must report to you that Professor Brian Palestis has died after battling a long illness.

Brian joined the Wagner College faculty as an assistant professor in the Department of Biological Sciences in 2001. In 2007, he was granted tenure and promoted to associate professor, rising to the rank of full professor in 2013. He was a two-time winner of the Faculty Award for Exceptional Performance in the area of Scholarship (2004, 2010) and also won the Faculty Award for Exceptional Performance in the area of Teaching (2014). Brian held the Martha Megerle Endowed Chair (Fall 2014 through Summer 2016).

That brief description of Brian’s career at Wagner, however, does not tell the entire story. An outstanding teacher, Brian committed himself to the success of his students. He mentored many students, encouraging them to pursue graduate study in the field. A prolific scholar, he produced more than 30 journal articles during his years at Wagner in the areas of animal behavior, ecology, and evolutionary biology. His most prominent studies focused on birds, notably terns.  He was a leading member of the campus community. A longtime chair of the Department of Biological Sciences, he served on a number of standing committees in our system of shared governance, most notably the Academic Policy Committee, which he chaired.

Brian was also Coach Palestis. A four-year starter and two-time Honorable Mention All American at Princeton University, Brian was a volunteer assistant coach for Wagner’s fencing team. An expert on terns teaching his other love to a group of Seahawks.

We were all so excited to see Brian back on campus last fall. Unfortunately, partway through the semester, Brian had to step away from the classroom to receive additional treatment. He was looking forward, as were we, to his return to Wagner in the spring. Sadly, this was not to be the case. He leaves behind his wife, Meghan, and two children, Connor and Caitlin.

A soft-spoken man, Brian’s dedication to the college spoke volumes. Words cannot ease the loss experienced by his family, friends and colleagues. Yet words are all we have. Brian Palestis was a great teacher, a great scholar and, most importantly, a great person.

We will miss his presence at Wagner, but he will always be in our hearts.

President Joel W. Martin
Provost Jeffrey Kraus

  • A wake, or family visitation, is scheduled this Friday, Jan. 31 from 3 to 7 p.m. at the Bradley, Smith & Smith Funeral Home, 415 Morris Ave., Springfield Twp., N.J. All are welcome to attend.
  • A funeral Mass is scheduled for this Saturday, Feb. 1 at 10 a.m. at St. James the Apostle Church, 45 S. Springfield Ave., Springfield Twp., N.J. All are welcome to attend.

To share your remembrance of Brian Palestis, just email

We will add remembrances to this web page, as we receive them.

Here are links to a few more sources on the life of Brian Palestis:

Foiled Again: A Seabird Scientist Coaches Seahawk Saber” — Wagner Magazine, Fall 2017

Dancing with Data: Wagner Professor Helps Uncover a Major Scientific Fraud” — Wagner College 2013 Annual Report

Obituary: Brian G. Palestis, 46

Retired Professor Ammini Moorthy
remembers Brian Palestis

Read more about Ammini Moorthy

Ammini Moorthy

I am saddened to hear that our colleague and dear friend Brian Palestis is no more. Mere words cannot convey my sorrow and hurt feeling, but I think of the words from a Billy Joel song: “Only the good die young.” Yes Brian was good — I would even say “the best” — in so many ways, and the hundreds of students who are lucky enough to have had him as a teacher would know that to be true, as would his colleagues, co-committee members, administrators, staff members and trustees at Wagner. We really have lost a gem, a treasure we had at Wagner.

Young and energetic, a Princeton undergraduate who just finished his Ph.D. at Rutgers University, Brian joined Wagner in 2001 as an assistant professor, replacing Dr. Walter Kanzler, who had just retired. Brian’s enthusiasm for teaching and research, his deep-set knowledge of how to redo our curriculum to reflect everything that is new and appropriate for a new curriculum, his administrative skills, and of course his youth and go-getter attitude impressed us all. The students just adored him and flocked to all the courses he taught. He taught at all levels — freshman, intermediary and capstone courses — of the Wagner Plan and made friends with professors and colleagues from all the other departments. The administration started noticing his talent and abilities and encouraged him to run for various committees, and he was voted in by the rest of the faculty. He probably served on almost all the committees at Wagner, and he contributed immensely in every one of them. His intellectual ability, his mastery of the subject matter at hand, and his gentle and persuasive nature in getting things done made him a very popular addition to the Biology Department and Wagner College.

Several students signed up to do undergraduate research with him, studying the behavior of zebrafish. Soon there were drunken zebrafish, chemically treated zebrafish, zebrafish of all varieties sitting in little tanks, and students were observing them for any behavioral changes, collecting data, doing statistical analyses of their data with Brian, going for science conferences and even getting their work published.

The Biology Department elected him as chair three times, which was very unusual. He was always fair and just and sought consensus when introducing innovative and new ideas. The Biology Department became an exemplary department under his guidance, and we are all thankful for that.

I had a terrible fall in 2012 that tore my kneecap, and I had to have a major surgery. Brian was the chair at that time, and he willingly and effectively taught my genetics class and lab. He frequently visited me in rehab and at home. He and I started sharing our love for population genetics and trading research articles with each other.

I retired from Wagner in 2013 and later moved to New Hampshire to be close to my daughter, but we still kept exchanging articles and wishing each other well all the time. I knew about his illness; we traded articles and at times even discussed all the new and innovative cancer treatments he was going through.

I am in India right now on a vacation, visiting my relatives and friends, and I just received this news. I feel very sad that we have lost a very special friend, a good teacher and great human being. My condolences to his wife and children, and to the Wagner community at large. He was always a fighter and went down fighting.

There are so many things we do not understand, and this is one of them. Why does he have to leave us? Only God knows.

From Eliza Garcia ’19 M’21

Dr. Palestis was one of my favorite professors at Wagner. I took Biostatistics with him and he had so much patience in class, always offering extra help and time to students who needed it. I remember listening to him speak about his research, and there was no question he loved it! Dr. Palestis was always smiling and making jokes in class. He will be deeply missed. My thoughts and prayers go out to his family.

From Beatrice DeMarco,
Wagner College Pre-Health Society president

There are absolutely no words to describe what a great man, teacher and mentor Dr. Palestis was to the entire Wagner College community. Dr. Palestis was one of the most dedicated professors I have ever met in my college career. Not only was Dr. Palestis amazing in the classroom, but his true passion for the behavioral sciences showed through his research with the terns in Barnegat Bay. I had the opportunity of spending this past summer with Dr. Palestis on his little boat researching tern migratory patterns. The time we spent together will always remain etched in my heart. I wish I could thank him for all the time he spent with me as a mentor, professor and friend. Dr. Palestis furthered my passion for veterinary medicine and allowed me to follow through with my professional aspirations and dreams. Serving as one of my research advisors, he always answered every one of my many questions without hesitation. Dr. Palestis shared his endless knowledge with me, and for that I am forever grateful. He leaves behind his wife and two children, of whom he was so proud. I cannot express the loss this leaves to the entire Biological Sciences Department as it will never be the same without him. The impact Dr. Palestis leaves on the Wagner College community is unmatched. I know his past students, colleagues and friends will continue to work each day to make him proud.

From Shaohua Hu,
Wagner College government professor

Shaohua Hu

I was saddened to hear at the first faculty meeting in 2020 that Brian passed away. Having known his struggle with cancer, I was still caught by surprise.

Brian and I came to Wagner at the same time. The fall of 2001 saw 10 new hires. Given our different specialties, we did not interact much, but our chats were memorable. Once I asked him how he could get into Princeton, adding he might be a genius. He was being modest, saying that fencing helped him. That was the first time I knew he was a good fencer.

In Foundation Hall, Brian once offered to share his pedagogy with faculty members. I learned something about Darwin’s theory of evolution. Without a liberal arts education, I never took a biology course. Somehow I heard about a vulgar version that apes gradually transformed themselves into humans. It was possible, but I was a bit skeptical.

Brian provided a more convincing version. Here was the example we discussed, if my memory and understanding are not wrong: Suppose the climate turns cold, and birds need stronger beaks to crack open nuts. Birds will not grow stronger beaks in their lifetimes, but those with big beaks have the better chance to mate and to survive.

After my trip to Greece, including a one-day cruise from Athens to three Aegean islands, I mentioned this. Brian told me that his father had bought a house on an island and that he summered there sometimes. A philhellene, I was impressed by his good fortune.

Finally, I asked Brian how he was doing and what had caused his illness. From his admirable composure, I believed and hoped that my curiosity did not bother him. Needless to say, it was hard to pinpoint an exact cause. Among the culprits were the negative impact of a toxic environment in certain areas.

It is easy to see that Brian and I did not talk much, and when we did, it was I who initiated the conversation. In Brian I found a serious, reliable, honest, knowledgeable person and scholar. Only today did I realize that he was only 46. What a talent! What a loss! RIP, Brian!

From Monica Valero '18,
now a Cornell veterinary student

My heart breaks for the whole Palestis family. I am extremely lucky to have had Dr. Palestis as a teacher, mentor and, more importantly, a friend. He was so passionate about so many things, but his love for the research we conducted together is what I will remember the most. Dr. Palestis inspired his students with his knowledge, his love for biology, and his dedication to us.

I got to know him on a personal level while conducting research with him for a summer, just him and me on a tiny boat in the middle of the bay off Long Beach Island, studying common terns. He was funny, incredibly proud of his family, and one of the kindest men I have ever met.

Dr. Palestis, thank you for being a fantastic teacher, being my research adviser, pushing me to get our research published, writing my recommendation letter for veterinary school, and being a confidant. You are the biggest reason why I have such fond memories of Wagner College. There is a hole in the Wagner community, and the Biology Department, that can never be filled.

From Maggie Shaw ’16

My deepest condolences to the Palestis family. I was a student of Brian’s who had the honor of getting to do tern research with him in Barnegat Bay during the summers of 2014 and 2015. I can’t stress how pivotal those summers were for me, traveling between Staten Island and the Barnegat area, both as a scientist and now as someone who calls that region my second home.

Working with Dr. Palestis and seeing his passion for the terns and their environment has helped me develop my own interest and love for the region and its ecosystem.

As an adviser and teacher, his kind and thoughtful (while somewhat quiet) guidance taught me so much about being a better scientist and the importance of having a deeper understanding of your environment.

Since the summer of 2015, I have spent my summers living on Long Beach Island on North 2nd Street in Surf City, where Brian kept his boat. I would often see him at the end of North 2nd, loading or unloading his boat with all his traps and tags, and would stop by to chat and see how he was doing.

I am deeply saddened to hear of his passing, and my thoughts are with you and others who were close to him.

From Taylor White ’17 M’20

I only had Dr. Palestis for one class, but if you knew him you’ll agree: that’s all it takes to be inspired by him. At the time, I hadn’t found my love for biology yet, but with his passion it was hard not to love what he was teaching.

It wasn’t until long after that course was over that I realized how much he truly had taught me.

Over 2 years later, I was studying for my professional school exam, with a large portion of it being Biodiversity and Ecology. Many of my classmates were struggling with these topics and couldn’t understand why I wasn’t. They would joke with me that I knew so many useless facts about fungi and protists. I actually pulled out the notes I had saved from Dr. Palestis’s class and gave them a crash course on it. Till this day, I have kept those notes because they have taught me more than any review course.

Last year, I was debating on emailing Dr. Palestis with this exact story to thank him for creating such a great platform for me on a difficult subject. I never sent that email, and now I regret it immensely — but, hey, maybe he’s reading it here now with all of us.

So thank you, Dr. Palestis, for all of your knowledge and passion. You were, without a doubt, the best biology professor I had during my undergrad years. May you rest in peace.

From Susan Bernardo,
Wagner College English professor

Though Brian and I were in different departments, we served together on the Academic Policy Committee. He was one of the most impressive, focused and fair people I have known. He always had full command of the details and saw the broader implications of issues clearly. Beyond these talents, his passion for his work and his fundamental goodness were both amazing. His friend and colleague Ammini Moorthy said it best when she called Brian a gem. My deepest condolences to Brian's family.

From Michelle Detka '16 M'17

Brian Palestis, Michelle Detka

Dr. Palestis was an incredible professor, mentor, coach and adviser. He was one of the first people I encountered when I transferred into Wagner's biology program. He sat with me, patiently arranging my schedule and answering all my questions. His calm demeanor provided a sense of relief, even when discussing the most stressful of situations that I faced as a college student.

Dr. Palestis was incredibly passionate about the subjects that he taught at Wagner. I was fortunate enough to take my senior capstone course with Dr. Palestis, and until this day I still clearly remember going to a state park in New Jersey where he delved into all of his knowledge about the wildlife, trees and plants that surrounded us. His was equally passionate about the research he performed with students, studying birds on his boat at Long Beach Island each summer.

As a fencer for Wagner, I quickly learned how well-respected Dr. Palestis was in the fencing community when I attended my first fencing match and saw how many coaches approached him and shook his hand. Although he didn't speak of his successes as an All American fencer for Princeton, his ability to explain the technique and proper form reflected in his coaching. Dr. Palestis was extremely humble in everything he did, whether it was in his research or as an athlete in the fencing community.

I am very grateful to have had the opportunity to have known Dr. Palestis as an adviser, professor and coach, and my heart breaks for the loss of such an incredible person.

From Alexandria Zummo ’14

I wish I could find the words to describe how deeply saddened I am to hear about Dr. Palestis’s passing.

During my time at Wagner, Dr. Palestis provided so much inspiration for me as my professor, mentor and advisor. Since he was head of the Biology Department I took many of his classes, including Biodiversity and Ecology, Animal Behavior (my capstone), and my absolute favorite class, a summer course taken with other students, studying the vast ecological environments of East Coast states. He drove us around to various outdoor locations — forests, beaches, marsh lands.

His dedication and passion for his work is what I remember most about him. He never taught without a smile or a laugh, especially as he told us his tips or tricks for remembering certain bird calls or describing the difference between mustard plants. My classmates and I would discuss often how passionate he was about the field and how lucky we were to have him as a professor teaching our courses! The way he expressed his enthusiasm for his work and research provided his students with such a wonderful motivator.

I was one of the lucky students to be granted the amazing opportunity to study different species on the islands where he did his field research on the common tern. We spent a whole summer together traveling to the small islands of Barnegat Bay, N.J., studying a remarkable species on a tiny boat. I remember being in awe at how he caught the birds ever so carefully and placed bands on their little feet.

He was such an amazing, gifted and intelligent man who did so much for the world of biology; without a doubt, he is gone too soon. I will never forget him as he was the one who smiled proudly as he shared with me the wonderful news that I had passed my thesis defense — when I was nearly shaking before, during and after my presentation. In addition, he encouraged me to submit my thesis for publication, something I am still so extremely proud of and would have otherwise thought not possible. Although I went on to become a physician assistant, a field completely different from his own — for which Dr. Palestis even provided one of my recommendation letters — I truly am so grateful for and enjoyed my time studying Biodiversity and Ecology because of him.

Dr. Palestis did so much for Wagner, his students, his colleagues and his family, and he was always so kind, helpful, patient and passionate about his work. We thank him for the mark he has left on the world; he surely will be greatly missed. I am so eternally grateful for all he taught me during my Wagner years, both inside the classroom and out in the field, for science is not something limited to a lab.

The Biology Department, Wagner College and the science community suffered a great loss on the day Dr. Palestis died, and so have his colleagues, students, family and friends. I only wish that I had been able to tell him in person about all he has done for me and his other students.

I remember how he spoke about his family and his children and their travels. My heart goes out to them in this difficult time.

Rest in peace, Dr. Palestis. You will not soon be forgotten, nor will the mark you left on this community soon be diminished.

From Jacqueline Whittenburg ’03

Jacqueline Whittenburg

I am deeply saddened to hear of the loss of Dr. Brian Palestis. Dr. Palestis was one of my dearest and most respected professors during my time at Wagner College. I learned so much from him, and I credit him for my proficiency in biostatistics to this day. May the Wagner College family find peace in knowing that Dr. Palestis’s legacy will live on through others as it will with me.

From Melanie Valencia ’12

Melanie Valencia

Dr. Palestis was a wonderful professor. When I was thinking of doing my minor in Environmental Studies, he really helped and guided me through the process. Little did I know, it would define the work of my current research. I also took his biodiversity class and I remember it very fondly. I remember learning to identify species, both plant and animal, thanks to him. I have this clear memory of my nervousness going through each microscope during a test while he cheered us on. Identifying species (now birds) is still one of my passions. A loss for the Wagner community, but he remains very much alive in those of us who he inspired.