Regents Hall and shared spaces
Research on the Natural Lands
Independent research and the Behrents family endowment
Alumnae write about working at the NOAA and fisheries management
Newsletter front page
Welcome, alumni and friends, to the second St. Olaf Biology Alumni Newsletter! We recently finished a successful summer of research and are well under way with first semester classes and labs. As we begin our fourth year in Regents Hall, we continue to be amazed at how well this building works for us, and how well we work in this building.
This year we welcome the class of 2015. We are also welcoming Henry Kermott back from sabbatical, and we are wishing Kevin Crisp and John Schade well as they begin their yearlong sabbaticals. If you come visit us, you will find some new faces in the department. Tamar Resnick is teaching Bio125 (Cell Biology and Genetics) and Alyssa Anderson ’06 is teaching Bio248 (Invertebrate Biology). This year we also are discussing revisions to the biology curriculum and conducting a search for a microbiologist. Never a dull moment in academia!
If you have not been back to the Hill in awhile, please come visit and take a look. We have enjoyed hearing from you, and we hope that you will continue to keep us informed about your adventures.
Enjoy your newsletter,
Biology Department Chair
St. Olaf has done what few other liberal arts colleges have in its creation of shared research spaces in Regents Hall of Natural Sciences and Mathematics. The many wonderful student-faculty research spaces are a hallmark of the building.
For faculty and students in biology, these spaces are nearly double the size of those in the old Science Center (and aren’t entered by passing through an office). More important, perhaps, is that all of these spaces are shared by two or more faculty and their students, including in some cases folks from chemistry and psychology.
These spaces were designed to promote interdisciplinary teaching and collaborative research. There have been some downsides to this sharing: “Where did ___ go?” “When is __ going to clean up?” “Turn that music down!” But these problems have been relatively minor and, for the most part, the shared model has been a tremendous success. Faculty and students have appreciated increased access to equipment for research and classes. They have also enjoyed the enhanced opportunity to interact with and learn from each other.
Charles Umbanhowar Jr.
Professor, Department of Biology
Rachel Wieme '12
Ten weeks, three projects, one unique experience. My name is Rachel Wieme, and I am a senior biology and Spanish major from Sartell, Minnesota. This summer I participated in St. Olaf’s Environmental Science Research Experience for Undergraduates (REU) program. Prior to this summer, I had a few other research experiences — the two largest being an REU through Kansas State University, where I did research on Konza Prairie, and a semester abroad in Costa Rica, where I did research on an organic cacao (chocolate) farm — but my experience here at St. Olaf introduced new opportunities and a variety of new skills. This summer I worked closely with three other students (two Oles and one from College of Menominee Nation) and our advisor, Professor of Biology and Environmental Studies Kathleen Shea, and over the course of 10 weeks we worked on three research projects on the St. Olaf Natural Lands.
First we contributed to a long-term (19 years and counting!) study of bluebird populations. Throughout the summer we monitored the 64 nest boxes that are on the natural lands to record the number of eggs or chicks of each species that eventually fledge from their nests. Although we still have quite a few tree swallows that also utilize these nest boxes (and get quite ornery when a person invades their territory), we were happy to witness the highest-ever proportion and gross number of bluebird fledglings this summer!
Our other two large research projects were also contributions to long-term studies about the restoration of two of the ecosystems that we have on the natural lands: the prairie and the conifer forest. For most of June we gathered data on the size and reproductive output of conifer trees that were planted 18 and 12 years ago in order to analyze the early growth patterns of the species in that ecosystem. Because these conifers normally grow in northern Minnesota, their healthy growth in southern Minnesota shows that they can grow well in a warmer climate under managed conditions.
In July we moved out into the prairie to collect data on plant species composition and soil characteristics. The prairie has three sections that have been planted gradually over the last 23 years, and collecting data from each section helped us study how restored prairie changes as it matures. We also were lucky enough to see the changes that were caused by a recent burn. The biomass increased significantly in the area that was burned last fall, visible as dense lush growth when you walk through the prairie!
The work I did through the REU at St. Olaf this summer allowed me to add such a wide variety of skills to my research repertoire. We experienced all sorts of fieldwork conditions and learned analysis and lab techniques, in addition to meeting other undergraduate researchers from around the country and participating in various educational excursions. Getting dive-bombed by ornery tree swallows; battling through the mosquitoes, ticks, and thorny understory of the conifer forest; and trudging through the prairies on days with 100 degrees-plus heat indices were small trade-offs for all of the valuable experience, skills, and knowledge gained in those 10 weeks.
Student independent research projects provide an important opportunity for students to engage directly in the scientific discovery process while at the same time earning credit toward graduation. For many students this is a first chance to work directly with a biology faculty member and to link readings from the primary literature with extensive and intensive laboratory experience and/or fieldwork.
In 2010–11 a total of 26 students did independent research in biology during the school year, and this fall another 16 students are doing independent research in the department. Projects last year ranged from constructing dose response curves for the effects of serotonin on California blackworms to the impacts of snow depth on soil biogeochemical processes to the effects of a chemical plant toxin on protein ATPases within lipid membranes.
Most of these projects require the purchase of supplies or small equipment, and many could not have happened without funds generated by the Dr. E. Gordon and Alice Behrents Endowment in Biology Research. Thanks to the Behrents family, who have enhanced student independent research opportunities in biology at St. Olaf College.
Charles Umbanhowar Jr.
Viking Annual 1938
Viking Annual 1936-37
Carrie Nordeen ’94, biology and psychology, and Carly Knoell ’06, biology and environmental studies
Fish is one of the last wild foods. Many global populations depend upon fish for their primary protein source. Not only is fish a low-fat source of protein, but recent studies show that eating fish can decrease your risk of heart attack, stroke, obesity, and hypertension. Eating locally can be beneficial to the environment as well as local economies. If you consume fish that is sustainably managed in U.S. oceans, you have the potential of improving the environment, your health, and local economies.
We work for the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration’s Fisheries Service (NOAA Fisheries), the Federal agency responsible for the management, conservation, and protection of marine resources. NOAA Fisheries assesses the status of fish stocks, ensures compliance with fisheries regulations, and works to reduce wasteful fishing practices. With the help of the six regional offices and eight fishery management councils, NOAA Fisheries is able to work with communities on fishery management issues.
Due to the challenges of understanding fish populations and their place in the ecosystem, creating management plans that enable people to profitably harvest fish without overexploiting fish resources is a difficult task. For example, fish species may have a unique population structure, age of maturity, or critical habitat for laying eggs. Some fish species even change sex depending on age or group structure. Fish populations are affected by environmental factors and human activities; the most common of these are habitat loss and overfishing.
Working out of Gloucester, Massachusetts, one of the country’s oldest fishing ports, our office manages fishing activity from Maine to North Carolina. In order to effectively manage fisheries, scientific data on fish populations (age structure, natural mortality, reproductive potential) and fishing pressure, in conjunction with socioeconomic information, ecosystem considerations, and policy guidance, are used to make management decisions. Our goal is to ensure sustainable fisheries and healthy ocean ecosystems today and into the future. If you would like to know more about NOAA Fisheries, please visit www.nmfs.noaa.gov.
After St. Olaf, Carrie completed a Master of Science program at Memorial University of Newfoundland, Canada, and Carly completed a Master of Environmental Management program at Duke University.
Laura Listenberger is starting her third year as a joint faculty member in the Biology and Chemistry Departments. While originally from Michigan, Laura has moved throughout the country in recent years. She attended graduate school at Washington University in St. Louis. She was a visiting assistant professor at Kalamazoo College and pursued additional research training at Stony Brook University (New York) and Torrey Pines Institute of Molecular Studies (California). After all that moving, she’s happy to be settled again in the upper Midwest.
Laura lives in Northfield with her husband, St. Olaf Assistant Professor of Physics Jay Demas, and their two young children. She currently teaches in the integrated chemistry/biology introductory sequence and upper-level courses in genetics and biochemistry. She also works with several St. Olaf students in the laboratory, where their research is aimed at understanding how mammalian cells store excess fat.
Look for more news from St. Olaf faculty in future issues of the second messenger…