Volume 11, Issue 2
Leah Stinson '16
Students seeking an opportunity to research and study a subject of their choice and build relationships with professors need look no further than the Hill. Though the biology department offers a vast range of courses, St. Olaf students majoring in biology are allowed to further explore their interests by doing an independent study (IS) course. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors may propose a topic to a professor for an IS course, which can take place throughout either semester or interim. Professors have advised students on a variety of IS topics, from cardiophysiology to membrane biology to global forestation patterns. Some IS courses are done in student groups of two or three, and the academic product(s) of the IS can be varied.
One student, Noelle Wolf '13, chose to study epigenetics last spring with Jean Porterfield. This IS course allowed Noelle the opportunity to incorporate two of her passions--biology and art. Like all IS courses in the biology department, Noelle collaborated with her advisor to select, discuss, and apply her reading materials. One way in which Noelle’s IS was unique was the final project: a children’s book. In this book, The Forgetful Disease, Noelle explained Alzheimer’s disease in comprehensible terms and illustrated relevant epigenetic mechanisms (see sample plates from her book below).
Though professors advise independent courses like IS courses on their own time, above and beyond their regular duties, they are still usually very willing to work with students in this way. Last year, 18 students were able to create their own IS course within the biology department, preceded by 17 students in the 2011-2012 school year. This being said, professors don’t always have the time available for independent study courses, so students should not absolutely depend on this opportunity. But faculty can’t say “yes” if students don’t ask!
Students interested in pursuing an IS course should start by sending an email to a potential IS advisor to see if that professor has the time, and if so, the interest in the proposed IS topic. The student and professor then work together to define the IS course goals and assignments. Official registration for the course often happens as late as the first week of the term in which the course is taken, and involves turning in a completed form to the Registrar’s Office (see http://stolaf.edu/catalog/1213/academicregs/course-reg.html#ISIR for details).
By Kirsten Maier '13
On two Friday afternoons during the month of October, if you were to take a ramble in the Natural Lands, you may have happened across a large group of people tromping around in the forest north of the Baseball Pond. Upon closer inspection, you would have seen they had orange weed wrenches in hand, and piles of plant debris were being made next to the trail or in the bed of a pickup truck. What’s going on, you might have thought, and had you asked, these people would have cheerfully responded, “Buckthorn pull!”
But what is buckthorn? European (or common) and glossy buckthorn are two hearty trees that are considered invasive species in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest. Buckthorn was first brought over from Europe as a common decorative shrub, but rapidly invaded many natural ecosystems including Minnesota’s deciduous forests. In 1999, Minnesota declared it a “noxious weed” and outlawed its sale and distribution. However, the plant continues to spread and remains a problem in many areas of the state.
Buckthorn is not the only invasive plant you can see around campus and in the natural lands. Reed canary grass grows pervasively near the wetlands, and garlic mustard can be found in the woods behind President Andersen’s house and next to the baseball pond. Wild parsnip, another noxious weed, can be found in the Carleton Arboretum, but fortunately hasn’t been seen invading the St. Olaf campus yet. We’re on the lookout for it because it is a common invasive in Southeastern Minnesota and is especially nasty considering its sap can cause devastating skin burns when exposed to the sun.
While there aren’t any more planned buckthorn pulls this fall, don’t forget that it’s a problem. Keep your eyes and ears open – come spring, we’ll be back out there with our weed wrenches, saving the woodlands from that beautiful but bothersome plant called buckthorn.
By Andrew Kaul '13
What are your plans after college? If you don’t know the answer to this question, it’s okay; you’re not alone. It is not an easy decision for most Oles to make, and there are many good answers. After graduating, some of us will go right to the work force; some will get a Fulbright or some other scholarship and study all around the world. Some will join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, Green Corps, or some other volunteer network, and many will choose to continue their education in a Masters or Doctorate Program in graduate school. Some Ole alums currently in a graduate program were interviewed and here offer some advice for choosing and applying to grad school.
Do I take a gap year?
If you don’t have any idea what schools you might be interested in, Jon recommends looking through the biology websites of multiple schools and perusing faculty pages looking for research topics that interest you. Contact professors that you might want to work with, telling them about yourself and inquiring if they are taking on advisees. In his experience, “Some professors will respond negatively, or not at all, but some will be positive, and you could start a meaningful conversation that gives you a leg up in the application process.”
How do I prepare for graduate school? How can I make my application stand out?
When applying for a graduate program, consider your strengths and unique experiences and be sure to highlight these in your essays and interviews. Jon also recommends that you emphasize having a liberal arts education, further explaining that, “If you think that some aspect of your liberal arts education has uniquely prepared you for being a scientist, talk about it!” Jon double majored in biology and philosophy and thinks that his background in a social science set him apart from other applicants. While crafting essays, Kameko suggests you tailor each application and make it unique, “Make each application specific to the program for which you are applying and ask for help from St. Olaf faculty with writing personal statements.” There is a wealth of information and advice that resides in the heads of all the biology professors at St. Olaf, but they can’t share it unless you ask!
What is the best part of graduate school?