Volume 11, Issue 3
By Ellen Squires '14
Working for the biology department is certainly no hall receptionist gig, but few biology majors know all that it entails. The bio department’s student workforce is a diverse group. Positions range from stockroom staffers to greenhouse workers. Together, student workers help keep the biology department running smoothly while also gaining some valuable job experience and getting a look at the inner workings of the department.
The biology department usually hires around 100 student workers each year. Though job listings can vary by semester, the typical offerings include TA positions, stockroom work, greenhouse, Natural Lands maintenance, department office work, and more nontraditional jobs like managing the aquaria and herpetology tank. The experience as a student worker depends largely on the position, as each has something different to offer.
Kirsten Maier is a longtime biology student worker. She has been a Natural Lands worker since sophomore year, and she is currently the TA for Field Ecology. Her experience is unique, since she is taking the course and working as a TA concurrently. Maier says it’s easier to learn the lab by seeing the whole process, from setup to cleanup. “The best part of my job is that I get to learn about the lab before we do it…it’s almost like doing the lab twice,” she says. Being a TA has also taught her the nitty-gritty of lab work. As an added benefit, she’s learned more about her supervisor, Professor Kathy Shea. As an athlete herself, Maier was happy to learn that Prof. Shea is an avid runner and outdoorsperson. “Ask her how many marathons she’s run,” Maier says, “I bet it’s more than you think.”
Emma Cornwell is also a TA, but having taken the class two years prior, she has a slightly different perspective. As a TA for Genetics, Cornwell is most excited about the opportunities she has to teach other students. “St. Olaf students are a pretty forgiving bunch,” she says, “so it’s a low-stress way to experiment with teaching.” She recommends TA positions to anyone interested in education. Cornwell has also had the opportunity to re-learn genetics through labs that weren’t offered two years ago, including a lab that lets students observe mutations in roundworms over the course of six weeks.
Other student workers, such as the natural lands and greenhouse workers are not affiliated with a course. These positions often have a less structured schedule, but provide students with opportunities in maintenance and hands-on fieldwork. As aquarium manager, David Skiba has perhaps one of the most unique jobs. He often spends over an hour a day cleaning the tank, feeding the fish, and changing the water. Having kept marine reef tanks since high school, Skiba helped procure the newest tank after three years of planning, and now works to maintain and develop it.
No matter the position, working in the biology department can be a rewarding and interesting experience. For more information, check out the interim and spring semester postings on the biology department website.
By Julie Fergus '13
Many student athletes at St. Olaf choose to major in biology due to their respective career goals: Volleyball captain Ari Carlson ’13 hopes to become a veterinarian, and wrestling captain Tom Mork ’13 will attend physical therapy school next fall. Basketball player Michael Jenson ’14 dreams of becoming a Physician’s Assistant, and Amy Prok ’13, softball captain, plans to attend graduate school for environmental engineering. Serina Robinson ’15, cross country and track runner, anticipates studying limnology or agroecology in graduate school. I am a softball captain, and I hope to become a science writer, to help those who have not studied science understand recent discoveries in biology.
While the appeal of a science major for these athletes follows a general trend of helping others—from animals to people to the environment—their interest in the biology major clearly helps them as individuals during participation in their respective sports.
Carlson often thinks about biology on the court by comparing her athletic abilities to those of various animals. She particularly admires the lung capacity in horses. She also enjoys comparing her physiological processes to those of other athletes. “Obviously I’m not a distance runner, but runners wouldn’t be good at jumping sports, and I have learned why,” Carlson says. As a distance runner, Robinson thinks about the physiological processes that make her more adept than Carlson at covering many miles each day. Robinson said she thinks about changes in blood pH due to lactic acid production while running. Mork also finds opportunities to think about human physiology—from metabolism when he’s cutting weight to biomechanics when he’s practicing. Jenson thinks about muscle function when he’s lifting weights or conditioning. Prok enjoys linking neuroscience concepts with softball, stating, “Emotions—that’s a big part of pitching.” Many lab exercises also provide opportunities to unite classroom concepts with various sports. In one of my animal physiology labs, I compared oxygen saturation levels after throwing a tennis ball against a wall for five minutes among a regular thrower and a former soccer player.
In terms of lab scheduling, a student athlete’s completion of the biology major becomes even more impressive. According to Robinson, Ole runners practice on weekends in order to reduce conflicts with afternoon labs and are encouraged to only schedule afternoon labs on Tuesday, the team’s early morning practice day, or Thursday, the team’s day off. Carlson adds that this year, the volleyball team delayed practice in order to accommodate one of her labs. However, most athletes agree that with conscious effort these conflicts can be resolved—especially with the on-going understanding of many science professors who also seem to love athletics.
For example, last year, Professor Swift frequented the softball field. He was seen alternating between snapping photos of his students in action and taking pictures of the natural lands. He also helps with cross country and track meets. Professors Pearson and Jackson work at basketball games and Professor Marino helps with football.
The study of biology seems to draw students and professors alike to athletics—creating a community of Oles with a strong understanding of the processes that allow them to compete in their sports of choice.
Image - Amy Prok '13 by Michael Swift
By Roz Anderson '13
Last spring you may have found yourself smelling smoke wafting onto campus, or have been coming down for a walk in the natural lands only to see the prairie ablaze. This fire was no accident. Each year St. Olaf students and faculty put on yellow “burn suits,” grab drip torches, and head down to the Natural Lands to perform burns on the St. Olaf prairies.
Historically, prairies were subject to frequent fires, often caused by lighting strikes. In addition, Native American groups recognized the benefits of prairie burns and were responsible for starting many prairie fires. Today, many conservation groups working towards restoring native prairies are initiating such fires.
St. Olaf is one of these groups. Each fall and spring we try to burn a portion of our prairie. Ideally, each portion is burned every 3-5 years. However, this is not always possible because burns require specific environmental conditions. The wind must be blowing away from the Northfield Hospital, and moisture levels must be high enough to allow for easy fire control. We also have a partnership with the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service and they must be present to burn any prairies that they help manage. The proper conditions did not arise this fall, so we were unable to perform any prairie burns. Hopefully we will be able to carry out a burn this spring.
Fires are essential to a healthy prairie ecosystem. Without burns, we would find our prairies overrun by woody trees and other invasive species. Prairie plants are adapted to fires and have a root system, up to 12 feet deep, that allow plants to survive the intense heat of a burn. Most invasive species have a shallower root system making them less likely to survive a fire. Burns also put nutrients stored in the dead plant matter back into the soil, promoting new plant growth. In addition to the nutrient increase, burning increases growth by removing dead plant matter and allowing light to penetrate and quickly warm the soil of the burned areas in the spring. Right after a spring burn a prairie looks black and lifeless, but within ten days plants start to pop up. By summer the prairie will be back to a sea of grasses and scattered prairie flowers. Pay attention this spring to get a peek at this fascinating system.
Image Prairie burn by Kathy Shea
By Andrew Kaul '13
Like many incoming freshman, Chiamaka Isiguzo '14 came to St. Olaf to start her path towards a career in medicine, but along the way she has found herself taking an unexpected detour. Through the McNair and CURI (Collaborative Undergraduate Research and Inquiry) programs, Isiguzo had the opportunity to be paired with a St. Olaf faculty member this past summer to gain research experience. After reviewing her options, she chose to partner with professor Demas and start to explore the interdisciplinary world of neuroscience through investigating the function of melanopsin retinal ganglion cells. The full team studying this topic also included professor Van Wylen and a physics student, Charles Whitmore.
These recently discovered cells are located alongside traditional ganglion cells, but are distinct because they function as photoreceptors. However, they still receive signals originating from rod and cone cells, the photoreceptors that initiate vision. The team is investigating the role these cells play in separating visual information from other information and deciding what is transferred to the optic nerve, and eventually, the brain. These cells are thought to report the brightness of the environment to brain structures that control pupil constriction and circadian rhythms.
Isiguzo, having little background in neuroscience, spent the whole first week of research reading primary literature and discussing the system with her advisor. After this intense introduction period, came the fun part. They studied these cells through both in vivo and in vitro systems. In the former, the team sedated a mouse and exposed one eye to different intensities of light, while taking video of the pupil constriction of the other eye. The in vitro testing involved isolating a retina and testing its responses to light by placing it in a physiological saline solution on a plate of 256 electrodes. Isiguzo explains that a large part of her and Whitmore’s contribution to the research involved designing the optimal testing conditions to ensure the highest possible quality of data. Specifically, she was involved in maintaining the optimal pH, temperature, and salinity of solution to keep the test retina alive as long as possible in vitro.
Broadly, the team’s results indicate that input from rods and cones helps these cells moderate their responses to rapid fluctuations in light levels. Isiguzo and Whitmore have had the opportunity to present their results at four conferences and poster sessions so far. These include a St. Olaf summer research presentation, and three conferences: The Society for Neuroscience conference in New Orleans, Midstates Consortium for Math and Sciences at the University of Chicago, and MidBrains at Carleton College. Isiguzo reflects that she was nervous to be presenting at larger sessions because she was afraid that she would get a question she couldn’t answer. Thankfully she reports that while she did have many visitors to her poster and spoke with several experts in the field, she felt comfortable answering all of the questions posed to her. She attributes this success to the dedicated mentoring she received from professor Demas; she is glad that he made sure she understood what they were doing at every step in the research process. She felt this made her experience with research especially enjoyable and successful.
Image - Chiamaka Isiguzo by a friend