Intro biology lab students share snapshots from their independent research projects

As the culmination of the year-long introductory biology lab course, all students undertake a large independent research project to apply the skills they’ve learned through a wide array of lab exercises, and begin to specialize in their own interests within the broad field of biology. Whereas in the past students worked with their laboratory section instructors on their projects, this year, the course allowed students to select faculty mentors outside of their lab section so they could receive more specialized help in their particular field of interest.

“We aren’t all Renaissance people,” said Dr. Jennifer McMahon, lead instructor and director of introductory labs. In past years, faculty had a difficult time assisting students on projects that fell outside their areas of expertise, so allowing students to pick their own mentors alleviates some of the pressure on the faculty, and lets students find subjects they are truly passionate about. Additionally, the close partnership between students and faculty mentors who share their interests can turn short, 6 week projects into multi-year research endeavors.

“The recruitment component of this new approach is very important,” notes department chair, Dr. Drew Kerkhoff. “We want to help students identify potential faculty mentors as early as possible. Hopefully, the changes will break down the barrier for students who otherwise might hesitate to approach one of their professors about research opportunities. It also helps faculty identify talented young students who share their research interests.”

Student research proposals must be approved by both their lab instructor and their faculty member. At the end of the semester, after designing and conducting their research, the students write scientific papers on their project and present their work to their lab mates and instructors, joining a long line of young researchers stretching back 25 years. You can even read papers from past years via Digital Kenyon. And each year, the latest papers are added to the collection, giving students their first taste of scientific publication.

Check out a sample of our students’ diverse and exciting projects!

Science in Writing: Animal Physiology


In Kenyon biology, students learn not only how to perform scientific inquiry but how to communicate their science clearly and effectively. Dr. Christopher Gillen has a passion for understanding how animals work, and his research specializes in salt and water balance physiology, most recently examining salt absorption and secretion in the Aedes aegypti mosquito. His course Biology 243: Animal Physiology is one of the most popular in the department, and students compare complex physiological processes across different organisms under Dr. Gillen’s enthusiastic instruction. In addition to his passion for understanding how animals work, Dr. Gillen is passionate about making scientific research understandable and enaging for all audiences and he is the faculty director of the Kenyon Institute in Biomedical and Scientific Writing. This semester, he launched Kenyon’s first science writing seminar course with Professor Sergei Lobanov-Rostovsky of the English department, where students read and discuss a wide variety of literature with a scientific focus, write voraciously on their own scientific fascinations, and experiment with the many techniques and nuances of the science writing genre.

Dr. Gillen stresses the importance of communicating science in all of his classes, particularly how to write about science for a variety of audiences:

“Pitching complicated research to a general audience is hard. Students must understand the science deeply and frame it with compelling writing and storytelling. And the skills they learn writing for a general audience transform them into better scientific writers.”

In Animal Physiology, students were asked to complete a News and Views assignment where they write two essays on the same scientific research article: one essay that makes an argument about the research to an audience of scientists and another essay that explains the research to a broader audience of non-scientists. Here is one such article for a general audience, written by junior neuroscience major John Wilhelm:

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Perspectives in Research: Rachel Schafer joins researchers at the 2017 Society of Toxicology National Conference

Note from Sarah: This is a guest post written by Rachel Schafer ’18. Schafer’s work in the Powell lab focuses on the effects of environmental toxins on the thyroid pathway in African clawed frog development.


Me and Dr. Wade Powell in front of my poster.

This spring break, I was fortunate enough to attend the 2017 Society of Toxicology National Conference in Baltimore, Maryland.  I went with my professor, Dr. Wade Powell, to present a poster on the interaction of an environmental toxin, TCDD, and the thyroid hormone pathway in Xenopus laevis metamorphic development.  Our findings demonstrated a discrepancy between gene expression in our X. laevis cell line and in the exposed tadpoles.  I was also privileged enough to win the Pfizer SOT Undergraduate Travel Award, which generously funded my costs at the conference. Continue reading

Mishaps in the Lab: Biology faculty tell tales of experimental failure

Perhaps the most exciting aspect of experimental biology is its unpredictability. No matter how meticulously you design your procedure, check and quadruple-check every measurement and work with the utmost professionalism, things still manage to go awry. 

This time of year, Higley Hall bustles with exciting research: 50 different independent projects by introductory lab students in Biology 110, lab research on everything from plant and animal physiology to gene manipulation, the ongoing work of faculty and their student research groups, and seniors working tirelessly to finish their honors theses.

Today and every day, Higley Headlines and the biology faculty celebrate the wacky world of experimental biology and remind everyone that failure, no matter how embarrassing and frustrating, is a critical, not to mention hilarious part of the scientific process. It may not have been amusing when it ruined your entire data set and set back your research by six months, but as you’ll see, everything is funny in retrospect.

Poor Timing

“I once thought I’d be a good lab citizen and adjust the lab clock for Daylight Savings Time. I hadn’t realized it was held up with only a thumbtack! When I replaced it on the wall, it came crashing down – right onto the safety shower lever below and causing a flood of water from the shower above. I’m glad that the safety shower was in good working order, but I didn’t really need to be drenched just for adjusting the clock! I’ll never hang anything over the safety shower lever again (especially with thumbtacks).”

Dr. Sarah Petersen, Ashby Denoon Assistant Professor of Neuroscience

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Nat Carruthers ’10 Returns to Fischman to Fix ‘A Fetch of Fittings’


Nat Carruthers ’10 contemplates his work on ‘A Fetch of Fittings’ in Fischman Wing.

When Nat Carruthers was preparing to graduate from Kenyon in 2010, he knew he wanted to leave some lasting impact on his environment: “I wanted to leave an imprint on Kenyon as much as Kenyon was going to leave an imprint on me. I mean, I was going to think about Kenyon all the time, but would Kenyon ever think about me?”

He designed his legacy as his final project in a studio art class, where he was asked to create a piece that incorporated one hundred handmade objects. His one hundred (estimated) beautiful dragonflies are now suspended from the ceiling of Fischman wing in Higley Hall. Biology students and faculty alike marvel at ‘A Fetch of Fittings’ as they pass underneath on their way to lab or travel the second floor hall between Higley and Tomsich. The work’s enticing ‘fidget-quality,’ as Nat pointed out, inevitably led to the sculpture becoming tangled, so this year biology department chair Drew Kerkhoff invited Nat back to campus to refit his fittings.

Nat was thrilled to have a Kenyon homecoming: “I think there are probably fewer schools you can come back to where you can hug faculty and chat with professors and go have a drink with someone you haven’t seen, you know, do that kind of stuff and feel that they still really care about you. Kenyon is special in that way.”


This time around, Nat is able to operate the lift on his own!

Returning to Higley Hall brought back strong memories of Nat’s time at Kenyon, where he was on a pre-medical school track for most of his career in the biology department. Though his greatest fascinations were on the cellular level, Nat was curious about all the aspects of biology he studied, from animal physiology and genetics to wetland ecology. He also recalled throwing all his papers and binders off the third floor of the chemistry building following his final exam as a senior and watching all the papers rain down. “But we cleaned it all up afterwards.”

As a student, Nat spent many hours studying in the lounge chairs on the second floor of Fischman and Higley. He was drawn to the large windows and the bright open space filtering natural light like he was used to in his hometown of Boulder, Colorado. Designers, Nat said, are always “tortured by their environment,” and he designed Fetch of Fittings to fit this space in the true spirit of the biological mantra ‘form fits function.’

“I had thought it would look cool here because of light and the amount of students who pass by here- I always thought it would be cool to have something take up that space.” The curve of the dragonflies spiraling up to the ceiling on their invisible fishing wires draws the eye upward, and the overall shape of the piece is reminiscent of the spiral of a DNA double helix, mirroring the classic ball and stick DNA models that rest on the shelf in the corner of the wing.

The idea came to Nat as a slow buildup from his final studio art project, where students were instructed to create a sculpture that incorporated 100 identical handmade items. While most students designed pieces to sit on the ground or on top of a table, Nat, who has always been fascinated by flight, wanted something that could hang and move in the air and something that also reflected his love of biology. He chose dragonflies as his 100 items, fascinated by the elegant mechanics of their flight and their history as an evolutionarily ancient animal: “they symbolize that elegance, simplicity, and yet how complex they are as little creatures.”

The process of making ‘Fetch of Fittings’ was an experiment in patience, perseverance, and trial after trial. Nat worked closely with now-retired professor of  art Barry Gunderson, who advised him on optimizing and simplifying his design. At first, Nat was adamant about making his metal dragonflies intricate with as much biological accuracy as possible, but after trials and errors in reproducing the iron insects which turned out “really quite bad,” Nat learned that simplicity was key to a good design. “On the same sense as it’s handmade, it also has to be mass-produced,” a mentality he now applies when tackling projects with his design firm: “it’s about finding that place that has as little design as possible but also communicates the effect fully.” Nat finally settled on a simple design of a silver bolt with nuts as clamps for the wire mesh wings.

Once complete, Nat sold his sculpture to the biology department to hang in Fischman Hall, exactly as he’d designed it. He spent an entire day during his senior week before graduation on a lift with a maintenance worker who helped him operate the machinery while he fitted his design to the ceiling of Fischman. Once complete, all that was left was to classify his creation. Nat chose ‘Fetch of Fittings’ as a comment on both the concept and the materials of the work. A ‘fetch’ is the term for a group of dragonflies, and ‘fittings’ calls attention to the materials that produce them and the mechanics of the sculpture itself.

“I hope the source of delight is when you see them from a distance, you think wow those are really cool, and then as you come closer you see how they slowly move and you want to reach out and touch them, and I wanted that ‘fidget quality,’ that fiddle-with desire. For me, and I think my love of design comes from the fact that I like art that you want to touch, that really grabs your attention and draws you to delighting in the details, the simplicity of it.”


Nat adds one last fitting to his fetch.

Nat had the opportunity to fiddle with his creation once again on Wednesday and Thursday. He crafted extra dragonflies for the occasion, some he had left over from the original creation as a senior and some he made in his hotel room at Kenyon the night before his repair work began. He added two as I watched to fill empty spaces, but decided to leave the design mostly unchanged, instead distributing the extra fittings among faculty and passing students.

“Whenever you make anything, there’s a little bit of obsession, you know everything about it: always tweak, always perfect. I had dreams and aspirations of filling the whole space, just having hundreds of them raining down, but once again there’s this sort of constant reigning myself back.”

For Nat, the process of creating a ‘Fetch of Fittings’ was exemplary of how Kenyon shaped him as a student and a thinker, helping him to modify and tweak his goals until he eventually realized his dreams:

“I think why Kenyon is an amazing place is because brilliant ideas can come very quiet, and some of those barely formed thoughts, when they’re given the space to grow, can evolve into something amazing. And that’s where students come in is having the space to allow for that exploration, right? Because the general goal is to create a great education for people, but when you actually give space for ideas as opposed to just teaching there are incredible results, and that something that’s really special about Kenyon.”

As part of his visit to campus, Nat gave a talk to students and faculty on Wednesday entitled “If Art and Science had a Baby” about how his education at Kenyon as a biology major and studio art minor led him to his current career as the head of his own industrial design firm: Dezyn Group, LLC. He spoke enthusiastically about his long journey from avid student of biology at Kenyon to sales and operations manager at Zybek Athletic Products to head salesman for Audi automobile manufacturers to graduate student at the Metro State University of Denver to managing his own industrial design company, and he offered the students valuable tips on ‘designing your life.’

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.

Ecology Students Model the Effects of Climate Change on Local Wildlife


Professor Kerkhoff and his students mill around before the poster session begins in the Fischman 2nd floor poster gallery on Friday, November 18th.

Associate Professor of biology Andrew Kerkhoff’s ecology lab course is attempting to put a local face on a global problem with a new project modeling the potential responses of different Ohio wildlife to climate change.

As they gather for the culmination of their project: a public poster session for faculty and students, Professor Kerkhoff reminds his class of the importance of their work: “So often, climate change is viewed as this unmitigated disaster, and it just gets depressing and oftentimes paralyzing because it feels too big to really do something about it. But by making predictions about how climate change can affect specific organisms, it not only raises awareness, but it presents specific targets for conservation efforts.”

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Time Traveling in Ohio: Paleobiology in the Field

At 6 AM on a chilly November Saturday, Professor Eric Holdener’s Paleobiology class gathers in Peirce Dining Hall to grab a quick breakfast before hitting the road for our fossil collecting field trip. The entire class fits comfortably in one Kenyon van: me in the front, Sean Deryck ’18 and Jessie Griffith ’19 in the middle and Sarah Dendy ’19 and Nontokozo Mdluli 18′ in the back. Once we get about 5 miles out of campus, everyone in the back is dozing, and Professor Holdener and I listen to NPR and discuss the geology of the landscapes we pass. We stop once along the way to pick up some fossil fuel for the van, laughing as we acknowledge the irony.

It’s safe to say that Professor Holdener’s Biology 253: Paleobiology, fills a specific niche in the biology department. For some of us proud paleobiology students, we’ve been searching for trilobites and Australopithecine remains in our backyards for years, and for others it’s a convenient way to fill their environmental distribution requirement within the molecular biology major. But the field of paleobiology is truly a mosaic of the natural sciences, combining chemistry and geology with physiology, ecology, and evolution; there’s something for everyone’s curiosity. The course is advertised as a lecture, but Professor Holdener wants us to apply our knowledge to concrete examples and a lot of our class time is spent in the geology lab, analyzing and identifying specimens from his extensive personal collections. We are interested not only in what organisms are in the rock but how they were preserved and how they lived, using the scant fossil evidence and paleobiology publications as our guides, particularly the official Ohio fossils manual.


Professor Holdener searches for fossils at Oakes Quarry, once a Silurian reef bed.

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Meet a Biology Professor: Elizabeth Schultz Reichard


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.”

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