Biologists in the Kenyon Showcase

On April the 2nd, Kenyon students, faculty, and staff congregated at the Kenyon Showcase event (previously known as “CHIPS”) to celebrate the high impact work done at Kenyon. Presentations included student research, art projects, performances, mentorship programs, and collaborative assignments, highlighting creative engagement in and out of the classroom.
For those who couldn’t attend the event in person, Higley Headlines documented the wide variety of work done by students who are studying Biology or Molecular Biology.

Alex Freidinger ’20 and Carolina Andrade 19′ at the Kenyon Showcase

Student Research

Liana Valin 21′ and Fielding Ficher 21′ shared their Introduction to Experimental Biology independent project on cloning Homeobox genes from the freshwater worm, Lumbriculus variegatus.
Weichen Zhao 20′, a Molecular Biology major, discusses her research on the enhancer of Kruppel-like transcription factor 9, an important vertebrate development gene.
Carter Powell 20′ discusses his research on
seasonal regulation of reproductive structures in the moss,
Physcomitrella patens.

Engagement and Mentorship

Creative Projects

Sarah Jean McPeak 19′, a Biology Major, introduces Lyceum, Kenyon’s science literary magazine.
Jess Kushner 19′, a Biology and Film double major, discusses her work on Kenyon’s feature film.

What’s that thing up on the wall?

On Sunday, March the 24th, the Powell lab gathered in front of “the wall” equipped with their utmost artistic flare. They were painting the ligand-binding domain of aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), the major player in their research.

Sticking carbon paper onto the wall.
Tracing the sketch onto the carbon paper. Sketch credit to Sarah Dendy, 19′, a biologist who is also a talented artist.
Coloring in lines.
The complete AHR ligand-binding domain!

Want to put your art on the wall? You can submit a proposal through this link: It’s a great way to synthesize art and your academic interest. Isn’t that what the liberal arts education all about?

Student Feature: Molecular Biologist in Denmark

Hannah Hertz 20′, shares her experiance abroad.

Hertz in front of the John Lennon Wall; Prague, Czech Republic

I went abroad in Copenhagen, Denmark. I chose this program as a science major because I got to select a core course in the sciences (Medical Biotechnology), since I do enjoy science! Denmark has a thriving Biotechnology community. While abroad, I got to visit a lot of start-up biotechnology companies. One company is designing “oragami” drug delivery systems, where DNA is engineered to release drugs only in certain environments. Studying science abroad was fascinating: small differences in the culture and scientific community helped me see the discipline in a new light. I also valued the opportunity to explore academic subjects outside my chosen major while abroad. My all time favorite class was Holocaust and Genocide. This class was fascinating, and would not be the same anywhere else besides Europe. As a part of the course we were able to visit concentration camps. The dissonance between the peaceful canals dug by forced laborers for transportation really stuck with me, and shaped my understanding of the Holocaust in a visceral way. The opportunity to explore both science and new disciplines abroad was invaluable.

Nyhaven, Copenhagen.

I think a lot of Molecular Biology majors, especially if they are premed, don’t think they have the flexibility to study abroad. My advice for students who want to go abroad: talk to your advisor or other students who have gone abroad in your major. It’s possible! My advice to science majors thinking about going abroad is to be mindful of your class schedule. Even as a sophomore, this will be helpful to more evenly distribute hard science courses so that you don’t have to take them all your senior year. Furthermore, talking to my friend who went abroad to Copenhagen as a science major was helpful in deciding to go abroad. It gave me the peace of mind that it was possible. Hearing about all her wonderful experiences got me excited for the opportunity and determined to go. I learned so many valuable things about myself while abroad, and am glad I asked for help so that I could take the time to go.

An Interview with Dr. McMahon

It’s late August, and a butterfly flits among the prairie flowers, unaware that it is taking its last sip of nectar. Armed with poison, nets and little plastic baggies, a pack of intro biology students are on the prowl. The student’s winged victims will be the subject of a series of labs, starting with morphological taxonomy and ending with DNA barcoding. Ultimately, the butterfly will join victims of years past in an ongoing diversity assessment of the Brown Family Environmental Center. The mastermind behind this annual slaughter of lepidoptera? Professor McMahon, lead director of introductory biology labs at Kenyon. I’ve come to ask her a few questions.

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Celebrating Darwin’s 210th birthday!

Many joined us on February the 12th, 2019 in our celebration of Darwin’s 210th birthday.

The progress made in science so far is truly remarkable, considering that not too long ago (in the grand scheme of things), we thought that the universe revolved around the Earth and that living things arose spontaneously from non-living matter. It was not until the insights of Darwin and others, like Alfred Russell Wallace that people began to understand the origin of diverse life forms, based on the theory of adaptation by natural selection. In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, where he proposed the theory of adaptation by natural selection. His ideas were met with outrage and disbelief. Since then, they have become foundational to our understanding of biology, but they still face some opposition today.

The persistent distrust in Darwin’s theory of evolution by some people is partially based on the misperception that it is not something that is directly observable, that natural selection is “just a theory.” In fact, even Darwin himself thought evolution is too slow a process to observe. Now we know that this is not necessarily true. Evolution by natural selection can be demonstrated experimentally. You just need to conduct the experiment on the right organisms.

On Darwin Day 2019, we were joined by Dr. Richard Lenski who told us about his 30-year-long evolution experiment that revealed the power of natural selection. His study organism is the common gut bacterium, Escherichia coli. He started with 12 identical E. coli populations and diluted an aliquot of the original culture 1000-fold with liquid media with limited glucose every day. There is also citrate in the culture media, a nutrition source that E. coli cannot utilize in its natural environment. And he was able to observe that after 30,000 generations, one E. coli population evolved to be able to live on citrate. That is, a growth environment with limited, ready-to-consume nutrients selected for mutants that can live on the alternative nutrition source. A new form of life evolved that could do things it’s ancestors could not. Natural selection!

“The best part about this experiment is how simple…how straightforward it is,” commented Dr. Lenski. With E. coli and a slightly stressful growth environment, his research bottles evolution in an Erlenmeyer flask.

Science, 2003, 300:1692-1697

Science, 2003, 300:1692-1697
retrieved from:

If you look at a comprehensive phylogenetic tree, it would probably be difficult to find us, Homo sapiens, among the countless other hard-to-pronounce Latin names. Because the range of evolutionary entries is simply so vast, so boundless, that me, the one typing up these words, and you, the one reading them, are virtually not that different from Oryctes rhinoceros, or Danio rerio. On our own evolutionary timescale, we are the population of Escherichia coli that evolved to consume citrate under certain circumstances. But we are also the population that has wanted to understand our own origins for as long as we have existed. We have managed to do so in part because of the insights of scientists, from Charles Darwin to Richard Lenski.

If you always had lingering questions about life itself, what it means to be alive, where we come from, and where we are going, consider studying biology to join the quest, to continue the valiant work laid down by our predecessors.

Upperclassmen reflect on Biology 110

Biology 110 projects are about to begin! Every year, students in intro biology lab choose a mentor and an independant project to work on over the course of spring semester. Although it’s a great opportunity to explore, there are a lot of biology faculty to choose from, and deciding on a project can be daunting. Higley Headlines asked Biology and Molecular Biology upperclassmen to reflect on their experiences.

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Summer 2019: Got Plans?

Good news: We are officially 102 days away from the summer break! Summer starts on May the 10th and class resumes on August the 29th, blessing us with a 16-week break. For college students, the summer holiday allows us to temporarily exit our current narrative and explore a multitude of thrilling new possibilities. It is great if you already have some adventure in mind. If not, here are some suggestions.

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Majors Abroad

When you sail across the Atlantic Ocean, there are dolphins everywhere all the time. Dolphins must enjoy following boats, because whenever Ben Berejka saw them, they were alongside the ship or swimming toward it. They would spin and flip, coasting along the bow wake like they were surfing. At night, shooting stars darted across the sky. Sometimes grey rainbows stretched from horizon to horizon, arching over a bioluminescent sea.

ben abroad

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Spring in Gambier

Spring semester at Kenyon doesn’t feel like spring until independent projects are over (really- it snowed on April 1st). Here’s a little of what it looks like:  

Wright Lab members Hannah Wedig, Sarah McPeek, and Jess Kotnour got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as part of the lab’s effort to understand how flight affects the evolution of birds.

Professor Schulz and Ben Berejka took blood samples of song birds at the BFEC to investigate the innate avian immune response.

Students in the introductory biology lab course worked with a range of organisms such as mosquitos, Lumbriculus, E. coli, and sorghum seedlings for their independent projects.

Professor Gunning documented the banks of Wolf Run in early spring.

Roadkill was the topic of my most recent digital photography project. As a biology student, I wanted to find a way to draw attention to the issues of roads that we often take for granted. We lose literally countless (because the U.S. doesn’t count hard enough) numbers of individual animals to roadkill every year and the environmental effects are vastly understudied. Roads divide habitats and restrict population movements in extreme ways and hopefully in the future (with the help of science!) we can create innovative solutions to these issues.

– Ben Berejka


An Interview with Dr. Arianna Smith

I recently had the pleasure of interviewing Dr. Arianna Smith who has returned to Kenyon as Assistant Professor of Biology this spring after her 3 year postdoc at Michigan State University.

Anna: Let’s start at the beginning: how did you get into science?

Dr. Smith: I grew up in the US Virgin Islands, in Saint Croix, and my mom was sort of a pet person. She went to college for animal science and kept us in the pet world. I thought for a very long time that I was going to be a vet. The summer before I started my freshman year in college, I was admitted to a program funded by the HHMI called the RISE Program. That was my first brush with research where I worked in a small animal genomics laboratory. The project that I was most invested in was trying to find genes that contributed to litter size in pigs.

I went to undergrad at North Carolina State University. Somewhere in my freshman year, I thought “yeah, maybe I’m not going to go to vet school.” I had already found an alternative that was quite fulfilling and, in retrospect, I don’t think I could have ever been a vet. I don’t think that would have been a career that I would have loved long term, but I loved being in that lab.

I went from NC State to Michigan State University. I got my PhD in genetics and I worked in a cranio-facial development lab, so looking at how the face comes together. Mutations in the gene that my lab worked on caused cleft lip and palate. I worked on how this gene affected fertility and egg development in mice. I also taught a lot in graduate school and felt like I had a very enriching experience in the classroom.

Dr. Arianna Smith

The times that I was teaching were as informative to my science as my science was informative to my teaching and so I pursued a number of teaching opportunities when I was in graduate school.

I know that you taught at Kenyon 3 years ago. What did you do in your time away from Gambier?

I felt like in order to be successful at Kenyon, I needed more training so I decided to take a postdoc. I went back to MSU, but this time I was at the College of Human Medicine. I spent my time thinking about how what happens during pregnancy to the mom affects and reshapes fetal development, ultimately leading to long-term adverse health outcomes. I did that for two and a half years and now I’m back here.

Are there challenges you have faced as a woman of color in STEM?

There have been some cultural disconnects that have existed for me where I felt it difficult to build certain networks because of a very obvious difference in background. I think it’s probably also true to say that the difference in background was not appreciated from both directions. So that is one of my larger challenges in the field. I am devising my own mechanisms to help me outgrow that. There was a time where there was much less confidence in myself as a scientist. I think that this might be a true statement for a lot of people of color in science and women in science. I am growing out of that everyday but does take effort. It also helps that I’m in an environment where people are just more conscious of what they’re saying, what they’re doing, and asking “are we being inclusive”, so, I’m being nurtured.

What kind of research will you be doing here?

I’m really interested in continuing to think about the maternal environment and how that translates into changes in the offspring. I am particularly interested in atopic disorders in offspring. Atopic disorders are diseases that are characterized by production of IgE (immunoglobulin E). Things that fall into this category are atopic dermatitis, allergy, and asthma. We’ve seen a significant increase over the last 30 years in the prevalence of these diseases and so, we have to ask ourselves why is that happening?

We know about the genetics of these disorders but we also know that genetics cannot account for all of the risk that we see. There has to be some environmental component. I’m interested in how the maternal environment during pregnancy restructures microbial communities which can lead to the onset of these diseases more frequently. I want to look at how the microbial community of the lung is different or not different based on whether or not an offspring has been stressed in utero or is experiencing atopic disorder.

Will you have students, or do you have students that are going to work for you? Is it a work in progress?

It’s a work in progress. I have a couple of students interested whom I am keeping in communication with. It’s just hard to start a lab right now. I’m still buying pipettes!

So if anyone is interested, come talk!

Yeah! It’d be great to have more students reach out. I look forward to mentoring students in the lab and want to build a productive lab environment. I’m going to have mice in the mouse house, so there could be opportunity for students to help manage animals.