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: https://imgur.com/a/dKC11

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.

 

Field Work in the Bofedales

Note: This guest post was co-authored by Brandon Byrd ’18 and Alex Fazioli ’19

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Alex Fazioli ’19 and Brandon Byrd ’18

A large part of our research in Professor Fennessy’s lab has been spent behind a computer screen analyzing gas samples from the ‘Bofedales’ or high-altitude peatlands in Peru and high-latitude peatlands in Alaska. When Alex Fazioli and I were given the opportunity to travel down to Peru and into the Andes, it wasn’t something that Alex and I were going to pass up.

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It took three days of travel to get to the Andes and our field sites. When we got to our lodge in Ocangate, we both were in awe of the backdrop of the mountains where we would do field work for the next couple of days. The dramatic landscape changes in Peru made for seemingly endless number picture opportunities. The sites where we did our work were situated below a glacier that feeds a stream that runs for about 3 miles through the wetland and empties in a lake.

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The goal of our trip was to characterize the carbon budget of the Bofedales through sampling for gas emission, soil coring, and measurements of the plant communities and peat depth. Our lab was specifically tasked with collecting gas samples for greenhouse gas analysis. For the trip, we needed to bring specialized gas chambers, vials, and other materials to properly collect gas samples from each site we visited.

The Bofedales are inhabited by locals who herd Alpacas and farm potatoes and other crops. The locals were extremely interested in everything we were doing and would follow us around as we did our work in the peatland. The terrain around the peatlands, while beautiful, was extremely rough, especially when hiking with 50 pounds of equipment. Furthermore, navigating the terrain often required hopping from one cushion of vegetation to the next which became a surprisingly fun but tiresome game.

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Overall, our experience in Peru was thrilling. When in the Bofedales, it is difficult to overlook the large scale of these ecosystems. These peatlands are breathtakingly beautiful! Currently, we are aiming to contribute to the literature to help characterize the relatively understudied Bofedales and their ecosystem services. Generally, we would recommend any research student to take an opportunity to pursue field work related to their project. It can take them to amazing places and help them gain invaluable experiences.

Avoid the flu. Catch the feels.

It’s that time of year again. Some (many) of us are sick, some of us are lovesick, some of us are watching Lovesick, and some of us are sick of love. Happy Valentine’s Day!

I asked members of the Biology Department for Valentine card submissions related to their biological interests/areas of study. It’s up to you to figure out who wrote them!

Send an email to kenyonbiology@gmail.com with your guesses. Get them all right and you could win candy!

Check out our instagram (@kenyonbiology) for hints throughout the day of the 14th. Answers come out February 14th at 10 PM, so get your guesses in before then!

valentinetreehugger

#1

tempsensitive

#2

valentine

#3. photo by Amit Mogha

CrabValentine

#4

PandaValentine

#5

Crossbillvalentine

#7

lichen

Bonus – Can you guess which professor took a lichen to this cartoon?