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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An Interview with Dr. McMahon

It’s late August, and a butterfly flits among the prairie flowers, unaware that it is taking it’s 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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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.


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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