A Kenyon Homecoming (Undergraduate Thoughts on an International Conference)

Note from Drew: This is a guest post from Toby SantaMaria ’17, a senior in the Kenyon Biology Department. In the Kerkhoff Lab, Toby studies forest carbon cycles. She is also is lab social media tsar and an indefatigable lab TA. 

593c5603-5863-47ce-846a-14913ccf166fIn January, I was blessed to be taken to the 2017 biennial International Biogeography Society Conference —which happened to be in my hometown of Tucson, Arizona. I went as a member of Dr.Kerkhoff’s macroecology lab at Kenyon College to co-present a poster with Dr.Kerkhoff. We presented on how Kenyon’s Ecology Lab class used R and some publicly available databases (like GBIF) to teach undergraduates how to make species distribution models. If you don’t know what that is, it’s basically a model that uses climatic and animal occurrence data to tell you where your animal of choice will or will not find favorable habitat based on climate, whether today or at some point in the future. As the course TA, I helped Dr.Kerkhoff teach the classes and stayed after-hours with a lot of the students to help them figure out their models. One of the goals of the poster is to show scientists that undergraduates can do real climate change science, so he felt that it was it was best if I present the poster with him at the conference.

When Dr. Kerkhoff invited me to the conference, it was really funny to me that all these biogeography and macroecology experts, for whatever reason, were going to have this huge conference literally 15 minutes from my home in South Tucson! I was equal parts excited and nervous, but more than anything, I was really hopeful about the meeting: hopeful that I would meet nice new people, hopeful that I would do a good job presenting my piece of the work I did with Dr. Kerkhoff, and mostly just hopeful that it would be a good experience. I’d had moments at Kenyon where I was really unsure of my place in the biological sciences, and I felt like a conference like IBS would be a litmus test for whether I stayed in science or not.

I wasn’t disappointed! At first, I thought the amount of information would be too overwhelming for me—we had long symposia all morning where big names like Sal Keith presented their big research results, and in the afternoons were smaller lectures given by still bigger names in biogeography like Marten Winter and Jacquelyn Gill, or huge posters sessions like the one where we presented. However, at the start of the symposium session on Monday, I noticed that we were asked to live-tweet the conference. So, true to my inner social media queen, I tweeted a LOT under the #ibstucson; which helped keep me pretty focused and practiced my science communication skills. I tried to include the most important points of every talk along with the most important figures, which apparently made my Twitter feed a crowd favorite at IBSTucson (according to Dr.Kerkhoff).

I was also super lucky to make good acquaintance with a lot of big names during the conference. I was fortunate enough to be in a lunchtime discussion and network session with Marten Winter, Dov Sax (the macroecology and conservation bio guy at Brown University – who was also Dr. Kerkhoff’s lab TA when he took his first undergraduate ecology class!), and Fausto Sarmiento (who studies the decolonization of science, University of Georgia). I also just plain hung out with a lot of really cool people. I got to talk about my research in multiple languages, I spoke to a lot of Master’s students on how to find a good graduate school mentor, and I got to share a lot of really happy moments with my lab mates and advisor. Being the real Tucson native amidst my lab mates meant I got to share a lot of what makes me who I am—from the good places to chill out at the student union, to the coziest restaurants on Congress Street, to playing pool and eating cheap pizza at SkyBar after the last poster sessions.

The nicest part of IBS Tucson for me-if I had to pick a singular moment and not just all of it- was the beginning. Dr. Kerkhoff, Cecina Babich Morrow (another lab member), Kiri Staiger (a graduate of the Kerkhoff Lab) and I went downtown to historic Fourth Avenue for a lab reunion dinner. It felt strange at first to be leading my lab mates down from the University to Fourth Avenue. I saw people I had grown up with my whole life casually walking down the same streets as people I’d only known at Kenyon. I had walked down Fourth Avenue maybe a million times—from when I was a toddler being carted around the University of Arizona by my young mom, to when my best friend and I would walk up and down the street just to grab the oatmeal cookies from Epic Café. For me, growing up in South Tucson made the place itself feel like an illusory home. It was a place my great grandfather settled his 16+ member family in 1940, where everyone knew me and I knew everyone because of the vast nature of my family tree, and where I inherited a lot of unmitigated negative feelings from the Tucsonan underbelly that had nothing to do with me but everything to do with who I ended up being. Tucson always felt like a transitory place to me, like a bad incubator from which I was always supposed to burst forth and move past and leave behind. South Tucson was always a place where as a brown girl, everything was to be quiet and soft and unseen lest you distract from the people of real importance.

But those feelings went away when I was at the conference with my lab group and advisor. Being able to sit with people who knew me, the real me in the rainbow hat that people call Toby and not Tayler with thick hair and the inescapable narrative of being a brown girl in South Tucson, was freeing. It freed me from the fear that this “research stuff” that I loved doing at Kenyon was evanescent and impossible to pursue, from the fear that South Tucson was who I would end up being my whole life. And mostly, it freed me from feeling that the only way to be a good scientist in my future was to erase all traces of my past. Eating and celebrating science at IBSTucson with my lab group proved to me that I am the biology that I love, and not just who loves and had loved me. My past in Tucson stopped feeling like an insurmountable wall and I stopped feeling like an impostor. Instead, in that starting moment of IBSTucson were I was sharing fry bread with my lab mates and celebrating science with people from all around the world, I finally felt…well, they say a picture is worth a thousand words.ibs

Celebrating Darwin’s 208th Birthday!


A beautiful birthday cake, courtesy of The 8 Sister’s Bakery

Every few weeks the biology department gathers in Fischman 103 for Biojournal club, an informal gathering of faculty and students. Student leaders mine recent journal publications for exciting research papers, and we carefully select an intriguing study to discuss as a department. We gather at 12 for pizza and beverages to accompany delving into deep scientific literature. At the small discussion tables, students and faculty alike delve into the texts of the papers, deciphering statistics, interpreting graphs, and raising questions about methods and conclusions. Every meeting yields a new discussion with topics ranging from plant physiology in seed dispersal mechanisms to rapid-scale bacterial evolution to editting the human genome.

In joint celebration of Charles Darwin’s 208th birthday and Valentines Day, our paper focused on sexual selection and the sex-driven ornamentation driving speciation of finches. Discussion was lively, and all involved felt the love for evolution, Darwin, and biology. The discussion ended with Dr. Slonczewski showing pictures from her trip to the Natural History Museum in London, England, which is proclaimed as a temple of sorts to Darwin and his revolutionary theories of evolution.

The paper discussion ended early so attendees could sing ‘happy birthday’ to our dear friend, Chucky D, and enjoy his delicious chocolate-vanilla layered birthday cake. We may have temporarily lowered our fitness by consuming all of this sugary cake, but rest assured that the long-term benefits of celebrating Darwin as a department outweighed any costs.