Meet a Biology Professor: Elizabeth Schultz Reichard

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Visiting Assistant Professor Elizabeth Schultz Reichard is the newest edition to the Kenyon biology department this fall. She joins the faculty after a year of teaching at Ohio Wesleyan University in Delaware, Ohio.

For her first semester at Kenyon, the department threw Professor Schultz right into the deep end teaching both the introductory Biology 115 lecture and Biology 109-110, the year-long introductory laboratory. She taught a similar introductory lecture course at her previous job at Ohio Wesleyan University but the range of topics for 115 is a little different; for example, Kenyon biology’s in-depth coverage of photosynthesis and cellular respiration. She says it’s been challenging preparing lectures on topics she hasn’t covered since her own college days and fielding her students’ technical questions: “It’s difficult trying to be the master of everything in biology when there’s so much to know, but the students have been wonderful and inquisitive and very eager to learn, which makes my job easier.”

Professor Schultz’s own love of biology began at a very early age. Growing up in northwest Indiana she remembers always being obsessed with animals and working her way through the taxonomic groups from snakes to dinosaurs to birds, which are after all living dinosaurs. She cites one of her greatest motivators to pursue science as her participation in her region’s middle school and high school Science Olympiad, a national STEM-focused competition to engage young students in applied science. She competed in the ornithology event which tested knowledge of identification, life history and behavior of local birds, and she says “once I did that event, I was hooked.” At her high school, she was able to get involved in a research project where she helped with mist-net studies on wild birds, and she says the experience of holding a bird and then letting it fly away was transformational for her as a scientist and a bird lover. “If you’ve ever held a bird, then you know.”

Starting as an undergraduate student at Indiana University, she worked in Professor Ellen Ketterson’s lab on dark-eyed juncos. There, she further solidified her love of birds and met her husband, Ohio Wesleyan Associate Professor of Zoology Dustin Reichard. It was here where she also discovered the field of ecoimmunology while analyzing junco blood samples in the lab. “Looking at the smears,” she says, “I realized that this is something about the immune system that you can measure from wild birds, whereas traditionally immunology is more cell-focused, not quite as organismal as ecoimmunology is.” After taking an immunology course as part of her undergraduate curriculum, she knew this was her calling when she entered graduate school at the University of California, Davis.

Under the guidance of her Ph.D. advisor Tom Hahn, who studies red crossbills in Grand Teton National Park in northern Wyoming, she focused on looking at variations in immune function among these highly specialized birds. Crossbills, named for the unique overlapping of their upper and lower bills, are specialized feeders that pick the tiny seeds out of conifer pods in the northern forests, and so their livelihood is largely determined by success or failure of the year’s conifer harvest which in turn is heavily influenced by climate. The red crossbill is also one of relatively few bird species that breeds year-round, even in the harsh mountain winters. For her project, she used blood samples and observational data to chart seasonal variations in their immune function, “looking to see what about their physiology and what about the environment that they were living in actually influenced their immune function if at all, and I found that it did, it varied a lot, and their environment was probably the biggest factor.”

As a fully fledged ecoimmunologist, Professor Schultz brings this interdisciplinary field to Kenyon with her own upper level lecture and lab courses: The Physiological Ecology of Animals. The field of ecophysiology presents a different way of examining how an organism responds to its environment, and it also has strong implications for conservation: “ecology is typically a field that very easily lends itself to thinking about conservation, many times at the community level or species interactions at a global level, but bringing in physiology, I think, helps us understand the mechanisms of how an organism is going to respond to its environment, so it’s really bringing more information into the intersection of what’s going to happen in conservation.”

The emergent field was just taking off as Professor Schultz was doing her research around 2005, so she’s never had a course in it herself, but after talking to colleagues who’ve taught a similar course she looks forward to sharing this exciting new field with Kenyon students. She wants to approach the class as physiology on a more organismal level. “We’re going to go through physiology and the systems, but we’re going to apply it to the whole organism. So for example, we’re going to learn about the immune system, we’re going to go into detail about all of the adaptive and innate immune function, but then after we learn about it we’re going to think about the fields of ecoimmunology and disease ecology, so we’re thinking about how these different fields are bringing our understanding of these systems into whole organisms.” She also plans to incorporate current primary literature into the discussions: “I feel like there’s no way around it, but with introductory courses but you feel kind of removed from real science because it’s so focused on what’s in the textbook; ‘this is something that’s been discovered maybe 50 years ago,’ and it’s hard to think about science being as exciting as it could be. Whereas here it’s like ‘this was published last week!’ So looking at something that’s very forefront in the field of science, that’s pushing boundaries and going this is how we understand it.”

As it turns out, a large portion of the ecophysiology literature is focused on ornithology: “when I teach a class and I give lots of bird examples, I always try to tell my students you know I love birds but also the literature is predominantly birds, so it’s not just my bias,” she explains. Birds are relatively convenient study systems because so many people love them and study them, giving contemporary ornithologists a huge basis of historical and life history data. Their flocking behavior also makes it easy to catch them in large numbers and their migratory patterns mean they are experiencing a range of different environments, making them, according to Professor Schultz, the “perfect storm of physiological and environmental variables that lend so well to the field of ecophysiology.”

During the ecophysiology lab, students will apply fieldwork techniques to survey wild birds at the Brown Family Environmental Center, and in doing so Professor Schultz hopes to discover an interesting focus for her own research. One of her curiosities is the potential for differences in immune function between closely-related Turdidae species like Eastern bluebirds and migrants like the Swainson’s and Wood thrushes.

Though she’s an ardent bird lover, she doesn’t like the intense connotations of the birding hobby and considers herself mostly a facultative birder, picking up the field guide when she’s around birds she hasn’t seen. One bird she hopes to see someday is a potoo: “I’ve never actually seen one but I think it’s the most ridiculous looking thing. Any time I look at a picture of it I just laugh and laugh, so it must be hysterical to see them in the wild. I also like barn swallows, I think they’re really amazing. They’re ubiquitous and they just seem like they’re having the best time, they’re flying around and catching bugs, and their call sounds to me like a ‘giggle fart.’ As you can tell, I like animals that make me laugh.”

When she isn’t studying birds or teaching, Professor Schultz likes to maintain her own immune health by running long distances and lifting weights. She also likes reading ‘non-science’ material: “I love science, but I have to read something different like historical fiction, something that’s not related to what I do all the time.”

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