Volume 11, Issue 5
By Sarah Ludwig '13
My name is Sarah Ludwig (Ludda to those who know me) and I am a senior biology major. To tell you a little about me, there is nothing I find as exciting as the biogeochemical cycling of carbon and nitrogen. My idea of the perfect evening includes discussing the ways soil microbes control their environment with a good friend. My happiest place in the world is struggling through willow bushes amidst hordes of desperate mosquitoes in the Russian Arctic. All of these things might seem strange to you, but I wasn’t always this way. I blame the St. Olaf biology department. Before coming to St. Olaf I thought biology was a “soft” science. I didn’t know what this meant, but I was sure it was inferior to the “hard” sciences like chemistry and physics. So I came here intending to study chemistry and math. And I did, I will complete my chemistry and math majors this spring. But through coincidence and good advising (thanks Paul Jackson) I ended up taking a lot of biology and environmental studies classes my first few semesters here.
The typical Ole studies hard, is active in many extra-curriculars, and basically achieves a lot. But we can never underestimate the impact a good professor has on our success and path in life. Freshman year I took intro to environmental studies from John Schade, and I have been hooked on biogeochemistry ever since. I see it everywhere I go. In fact, I challenge you to find a study in biology that cannot be tied to biogeochemistry in some way. The other chemistry, biology, and math classes I have taken have all informed my interests. However, our education at St. Olaf is a lot more than just what we learn in the classroom. I could tell you more than you ever want to know about methane from studying the natural lands with Jean Porterfield and John Schade. I have been to the Russian Arctic twice to study biogeochemistry and climate change in the most beautiful and fascinating ecosystem I could imagine. I traveled around Ecuador and the Galapagos with the equatorial biology class this interim. The incredible animals, plants, and bizarre forests were so cool that it even made me question my love and commitment to the Arctic.
In these four years my opinion of biology has completely changed. No other discipline is as inspiring or challenging to me. There is simply so much left to be discovered; John Schade once told me, “You can’t swing a dead cat in the Arctic without hitting a project idea that no one has ever done before.” My plan is to keep exploring biogeochemistry in the Arctic in graduate school. But I wouldn’t be on this path if it weren’t for all of the opportunities and amazing mentoring I’ve received from the biology department. So thank you; it has been a fantastic four years.
By Kirsten Maier '13
Look around at the snow and ice, and the trees with their bare branches waiting patiently for the spring to bring new energy. Feel the crisp air on your face, the sun’s warmth easily overpowered by the wind’s bite. It’s quiet; walking through Norway Valley, all you can hear is the crunch of snow beneath your boots, the rustle of the low wind through the valley, and… a jackhammer? Looking up towards the noise, you see the flit of a black wing, a glimpse of a red head, a flash of a white stripe as what looks like a woodpecker zips to a new tree and lets out a loud “Wuk, Wuk, Wuk!” What is it, but the one and only Pileated Woodpecker!
One of the birds that sticks around Northfield during the winter, the pileated woodpecker is not hard to spot. They are known for their large size, as adults are about as big as a crow, making them the largest extant woodpecker in North America. They are mostly black with a bright white stripe running across their face and down their neck. The distinctive red crest on their head easily gives them away: other woodpeckers do not have a crest, much less a bright one. Pileated woodpeckers are also easily identified by their calls. They are quite loud, with a “Wuk, Wuk, Wuk” that sounds similar to the Northern Flicker. However, because the flicker only calls during mating season, during the winter this sound is sure to be from a woodpecker.
Unlike their extinct relative, the Ivory-billed woodpecker, which needs old growth forest for its habitat, the pileated woodpecker lives in small woodlots throughout the forested regions of the continent, including our own Norway Valley. Though some people blame the woodpecker for killing healthy trees, the pileated woodpecker usually targets trees that are already infested with their favorite prey, carpenter ants, which are known to damage and kill trees. The woodpeckers are also cavity nesters, so they excavate their nest cavities in dead trees. Because other birds and small mammals often later use these tree cavities, pileated woodpeckers play an important role in the forest ecosystem.
These beautiful woodpeckers are very common in Minnesota and recently, one has taken up residence on the St. Olaf campus. This year it has made many appearances in the quad, though it has been spotted most in the Natural Lands. As you’re walking between classes, be sure to keep your eyes open and your ears ready. You may get lucky and see the great pileated woodpecker!
Image: Pileated Woodpecker, click on image for copyright information
By Christine Franzel '13
The two bodies rested on stainless steel tables in the center of the dissection suite, while we hovered at the edges, readying our gloves and scalpels and probes. I doubt any of us will ever forget the first incision, whether at a pale shoulder, a bloated abdomen, or thigh. The carbon steel scalpel extended from my index finger, and the butt of the handle rested neatly in my palm. Under tough discolored skin we dug through slippery wet adipose tissue, which crumbled away in handfuls that we slopped into buckets. Superficial muscles began to appear, then muscle groups, but rather than recall their insertion and origin at that moment we marveled at having unearthed a tissue once capable of the most delicately controlled movement. The conclusion after several hours was messy, wet, and beautiful. This was the first day of my favorite course at St. Olaf: the IS in Human Gross Anatomy.
Human dissection brings each of us to feel death, made wholly real through the all-absorbing sensory experience with the subject we study: the smell of formaldehyde, the weight of the heart in our palm, the texture of crumbly dried blood. In encountering death, do we feel a terror of mortality, or a joyful ecstasy of being alive? Do we see anatomical beauty, or slabs of fleshy gore? Just how close are we at any moment to being motionless on a stainless steel slab wrapped in plastic and infused with embalming fluid?
Dissection is a meditation. The act is thoroughly absorbing and rises above all else in one's mind so that the world outside the dissection suite seems not to exist. All is pale and dull by comparison. With deeper, deliberate dissection comes a pleasurably heightened awareness of what it is to be human. Gone is the former mindlessness of being. The simple acts of reaching, walking, turning around to look, all become conscious acts articulating in graceful deliberation our almost limitless capacity for expression. In this I feel a bond of common humanity with the cadavers.
Dissection of the brain was beyond extraordinary. I left the suite stunned numb, running my hands over my head, comprehending the soft grey lumpy mass within. This is the origin of everything I will ever be, every thought, memory, question, answer, every stab of existential angst known to mankind. My brain now knows of itself: its size, weight, texture, fragility, and power.
For the rest of the year, we delve into our own interests. A couple students pry away at a skull, another pops out an eye, severs ligaments in the knee joint, or isolates the delicate tendons of the hand. In moments of excitement we turn to one another and display what we've found, recalling names of nerves or muscles or tendons, or sometimes just exclaiming look at how cool this is guys! or yes let me hold it too! In this I see the value of what we do. We learn through self-motivated intrinsic curiosity. Though the dissection is simply an end in itself (certainly we discover nothing that hasn't been known for centuries), we engage in the best form of learning: that which inspires us to learn more.
I would like to sincerely thank all who donate their bodies to science, and St. Olaf for this unparalleled opportunity.
By Andrew Kaul '13
As many of you know well, each interim St. Olaf offers numerous options to take an experiential course that involves leaving our safe home on the hill and travelling right to the source of knowledge. These courses studying abroad provide students the opportunity to learn with all five senses, and discuss and write about their own experiences in addition to reading about others’. A picture is worth a thousand words, and personally I returned with 770 pictures from my brief term abroad, but I feel even 770,000 words could not encompass my experience abroad, as words and pictures can only go so far. But that’s the point really; a St. Olaf education is so much more than the sum of words and pictures in our textbooks. I spent this January on the Equatorial Biology program with professor Kim Kandl and 18 of my peers, and I had the experience of a lifetime.
This program offers lessons both in biology and foreign culture, as we travelled from the capitol, Quito, to the arid Galapagos archipelago, the aptly named Amazon rainforest, and the high-elevation Andean cloud forest. We ate, spoke, laughed, and spent the night with host families in all of these but the cloud forest, where we stayed at an eco-lodge on top of a mountain that only had an hour of electricity each day. Biologically, this course was a study in evolution, diversity, and ecology in a range of neo-tropical biomes.
The Galapagos archipelago was the first biome we visited, and I imagine was the favorite for many on the trip. The islands are so new that the species residing there have only had very recent contact with human beings, or any large mammals for that matter. Because of this, they have not experienced selection to fear us and thus are either quite curious about, or indifferent to human presence. If you think a zoo is the best place to see a wide diversity of animals up close, then you haven’t been to the Galapagos. On a single 30-minute dingy ride, we motored around a rocky inlet and saw frigate birds, blue-footed boobies, sea lions, marine iguanas, crabs, flightless cormorants, and the adorably small Galapagos penguin. You can walk or boat right up next to them, or often they will swim or walk right up to you. This behavior applies to terrestrial animals as well; I can recall at least a dozen times I had to walk around a tortoise, iguana, or sea lion lying in the path. As biologists, I think we all felt a little spoiled. Despite how cool the uniquely adapted plants and animals were in the Galapagos, it was not my favorite Equatorial biome.
I am a botanist at heart, and everywhere we went I was much more interested in the flowers than the fauna. The Amazon rainforest contained such high diversity it made my head spin. We were told that a single square meter contained more species richness than an entire hectare of forest in Minnesota. I thought I knew a lot about plants going into this experience, but after seeing all the new shapes, structures, and strategies the Amazonian plants exhibited, I was humbled and struck with a sense of awe, yet even this was not my favorite biome.
Coming to the end of our time in Ecuador, we took a long bus-ride west from Quito and climbed in elevation. We passed through a montane grassland called páramo, where we spent only a few hours looking at the plants adapted for the harsh windy conditions; they were like nothing I’d seen before and I wished we could have stayed for a year. We eventually arrived at our final destination and my favorite of the biomes we studied, the Andean cloud forest. Here the plants and animals experienced rain only slightly less than in the lowland rainforest, but also had to adapt to the steep and rocky mountainsides and the higher rate of disturbance as a result. Half of the world’s species of orchids can be found in Ecuador, and the cloud forest is home to most of these species. As a botanist, having the opportunity to walk around an entire garden housing dozens of species or orchids, was seriously a dream come true.
I am sure that I’m not alone in saying that my time in Ecuador definitely caused me to reshape my plans for a future career in biology to include studying internationally and working to increase collaboration between nations for a common cause. Ecuador contains an astounding collection of species that I feel incredibly lucky to have seen first hand. I highly recommend considering studying biology abroad on this or any of the other amazing programs that St. Olaf offers.
Images from left: Andrew using a magnifying glass to look at a plant by Marie Bak '14, Plant from the Heliconia genus by Andrew Kaul, Sketch by Meghan Exner '14, Galapagos Tortoise by Andrew Kaul '13