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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Spring in Gambier

Spring semester at Kenyon doesn’t feel like spring until independent projects are over (really- it snowed on April 1st). Here’s a little of what it looks like:  

Wright Lab members Hannah Wedig, Sarah McPeek, and Jess Kotnour got a behind-the-scenes tour of the Smithsonian Museum of Natural History as part of the lab’s effort to understand how flight affects the evolution of birds.

Professor Schulz and Ben Berejka took blood samples of song birds at the BFEC to investigate the innate avian immune response.

Students in the introductory biology lab course worked with a range of organisms such as mosquitos, Lumbriculus, E. coli, and sorghum seedlings for their independent projects.

Professor Gunning documented the banks of Wolf Run in early spring.

Roadkill was the topic of my most recent digital photography project. As a biology student, I wanted to find a way to draw attention to the issues of roads that we often take for granted. We lose literally countless (because the U.S. doesn’t count hard enough) numbers of individual animals to roadkill every year and the environmental effects are vastly understudied. Roads divide habitats and restrict population movements in extreme ways and hopefully in the future (with the help of science!) we can create innovative solutions to these issues.

– Ben Berejka


Field Work in the Bofedales

Note: This guest post was co-authored by Brandon Byrd ’18 and Alex Fazioli ’19


Alex Fazioli ’19 and Brandon Byrd ’18

A large part of our research in Professor Fennessy’s lab has been spent behind a computer screen analyzing gas samples from the ‘Bofedales’ or high-altitude peatlands in Peru and high-latitude peatlands in Alaska. When Alex Fazioli and I were given the opportunity to travel down to Peru and into the Andes, it wasn’t something that Alex and I were going to pass up.


It took three days of travel to get to the Andes and our field sites. When we got to our lodge in Ocangate, we both were in awe of the backdrop of the mountains where we would do field work for the next couple of days. The dramatic landscape changes in Peru made for seemingly endless number picture opportunities. The sites where we did our work were situated below a glacier that feeds a stream that runs for about 3 miles through the wetland and empties in a lake.


The goal of our trip was to characterize the carbon budget of the Bofedales through sampling for gas emission, soil coring, and measurements of the plant communities and peat depth. Our lab was specifically tasked with collecting gas samples for greenhouse gas analysis. For the trip, we needed to bring specialized gas chambers, vials, and other materials to properly collect gas samples from each site we visited.

The Bofedales are inhabited by locals who herd Alpacas and farm potatoes and other crops. The locals were extremely interested in everything we were doing and would follow us around as we did our work in the peatland. The terrain around the peatlands, while beautiful, was extremely rough, especially when hiking with 50 pounds of equipment. Furthermore, navigating the terrain often required hopping from one cushion of vegetation to the next which became a surprisingly fun but tiresome game.


Overall, our experience in Peru was thrilling. When in the Bofedales, it is difficult to overlook the large scale of these ecosystems. These peatlands are breathtakingly beautiful! Currently, we are aiming to contribute to the literature to help characterize the relatively understudied Bofedales and their ecosystem services. Generally, we would recommend any research student to take an opportunity to pursue field work related to their project. It can take them to amazing places and help them gain invaluable experiences.

Congratulations to the 2017 Honors Students!!

On Monday, May 8th, Honors students in Biology, Molecular Biology, and Neuroscience successfully defended their honors theses, bringing to a triumphant close what was, for many of them, years of work.


The 2017 Honors Students in Biology, Molecular Biology, and Neuroscience. Back row, L-R: Kenny Viel, Jiayu Chen, Lauren Michael, Adam Berndt; Front row, L-R: Taylor Jamil, Sarah Mohr, Sarah Naguib

The students had presented their research to peers, faculty, parents, and friends last week, but on Monday, they hosted their outside examiners, established academic researchers in their field who had generously agreed to read and critique their theses, and to come to campus for the day. Researchers came from the University of Dayton, University of Cincinnati, and the Ohio State University, among others.

Each student gave a short presentation to their examiner, then the two of them sat down for an hour to discuss their thesis in detail, as well as the broader area of science to which their work contributes. The examiners asked questions and probed for the limits of the student’s knowledge, but they also shared stories and provided valuable points of reference. The research mentors and other departmental faculty attended the exams, but the conversation is purely between the student and their examiner. One of the students captured the spirit of the event, calling it “intense, but really fun!”

Once the exams were complete, the students, examiners, mentors, and other faculty and staff gathered at Weaver Cottage to celebrate the students’ achievements and to enjoy a wonderful, relaxing lunch.


2017 Honors Students with their mentors. Back row, L-R: Kenny Viel, Jiayu Chen, Prof. Siobhan Fennessy (Biology, mentor to L. Michael), Lauren Michael, Prof. Andrew Engell (Neuroscience, mentor to S. Mohr), Adam Berndt, Prof. Joan Slonczewski (Biology, mentor to A. Berndt); Front row, L-R: Prof. Chris Gillen (Biology/Molecular Biology, mentor to K. Viel, J. Chen, and T. Jamil), Taylor Jamil, Sarah Mohr, Sarah Naguib, Prof. Hewlet McFarland (Neuroscience, mentor to Sarah Naguib).

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

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