Descendants of Kent Island: an Interview with Iris Levin and Toshi Tsunekage

Kent Island group photo, Summer 2003

Sitting in what used to be Bob Maucks office, Iris Levin has the same severe ponytail and outgoing demeanor as her photograph from the summer of 2003. The photograph was taken on Kent Island, where Iris spent the summer before her junior year at Bowdoin studying savannah sparrows. Surrounding her are three other familiar faces on Kenyon’s campus: fellow ornathalostist Bob Mauck, recently hired chemistry faculty Katie Mauck, and Toshi Tsunekage. The Toshi reclining in the chair next to Iris has changed more obviously since the photo was taken. He wears glasses now, his hair is cropped closer to his head, and his face has lengthened somewhat since he was a senior at Skidmore. 

Seventeen years since they met on Kent Island as undergraduates, Iris Levin and Toshi Tsunekage are the new biology faculty at Kenyon. Their offices are side by side on the third floor of Higley, and they are partners in research and in life. Iris will be replacing Bob Mauck as a professor of animal behavior, continuing the line of Kenyon professors whose beginnings can be traced back to a small research station off the coast of Canada. 

I had the pleasure of interviewing Iris and Toshi about their journey to Kenyon, and their plans moving forward, including future research in Mongolia, China and Northern Japan.

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Bio in the Squad

Today students and faculty gathered outside of Higley, eating pizza and discussing Dr. Slonczewski’s biology seminar ‘Evolution in the Galapagos Islands and in Escherichia coli‘. The first biology seminar of every year is presented by a faculty member who has returned from sabbatical. The seminar is followed by the Bio Department’s fall picnic. This year, Dr. Slonczewski juxtaposed their observations during a week-long trip to the Galapagos with the research questions they have been pursuing in their lab.

The picnic was also an opportunity for students to learn about two of the biology department’s organizations – Bio Journal Club and (us) Higley Headlines.

We asked students and faculty at the picnic to share some of their favorite (bio-related) things:

It was great to talk to all of the people who showed up! Our next biology seminar will be on Thursday October 3rd at common hour. Dr. Irina Artismovitch from Ohio State will be discussing “A battle from virulence genes among RNA polymerase binding factors”. Hope to see you there!

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: https://www.kenyon.edu/about-kenyon/office-of-the-president/art-committee/. 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: 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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