On April the 2nd, Kenyon students, faculty, and staff congregated at the Kenyon Showcase event (previously known as “CHIPS”) to celebrate the high impact work done at Kenyon. Presentations included student research, art projects, performances, mentorship programs, and collaborative assignments, highlighting creative engagement in and out of the classroom. For those who couldn’t attend the event in person, Higley Headlines documented the wide variety of work done by students who are studying Biology or Molecular Biology.
On Sunday, March the 24th, the Powell lab gathered in front of “the wall” equipped with their utmost artistic flare. They were painting the ligand-binding domain of aryl hydrocarbon receptor (AHR), the major player in their research.
The progress made in science so far is truly remarkable, considering that not too long ago (in the grand scheme of things), we thought that the universe revolved around the Earth and that living things arose spontaneously from non-living matter. It was not until the insights of Darwin and others, like Alfred Russell Wallace that people began to understand the origin of diverse life forms, based on the theory of adaptation by natural selection. In 1859, Darwin published On the Origin of Species, where he proposed the theory of adaptation by natural selection. His ideas were met with outrage and disbelief. Since then, they have become foundational to our understanding of biology, but they still face some opposition today.
The persistent distrust in Darwin’s theory of evolution by some people is partially based on the misperception that it is not something that is directly observable, that natural selection is “just a theory.” In fact, even Darwin himself thought evolution is too slow a process to observe. Now we know that this is not necessarily true. Evolution by natural selection can be demonstrated experimentally. You just need to conduct the experiment on the right organisms.
On Darwin Day 2019, we were joined by Dr. Richard Lenski who told us about his 30-year-long evolution experiment that revealed the power of natural selection. His study organism is the common gut bacterium, Escherichia coli. He started with 12 identical E. coli populations and diluted an aliquot of the original culture 1000-fold with liquid media with limited glucose every day. There is also citrate in the culture media, a nutrition source that E. coli cannot utilize in its natural environment. And he was able to observe that after 30,000 generations, one E. coli population evolved to be able to live on citrate. That is, a growth environment with limited, ready-to-consume nutrients selected for mutants that can live on the alternative nutrition source. A new form of life evolved that could do things it’s ancestors could not. Natural selection!
“The best part about this experiment is how simple…how straightforward it is,” commented Dr. Lenski. With E. coli and a slightly stressful growth environment, his research bottles evolution in an Erlenmeyer flask.
If you look at a comprehensive phylogenetic tree, it would probably be difficult to find us, Homo sapiens, among the countless other hard-to-pronounce Latin names. Because the range of evolutionary entries is simply so vast, so boundless, that me, the one typing up these words, and you, the one reading them, are virtually not that different from Oryctes rhinoceros, or Danio rerio. On our own evolutionary timescale, we are the population of Escherichia coli that evolved to consume citrate under certain circumstances. But we are also the population that has wanted to understand our own origins for as long as we have existed. We have managed to do so in part because of the insights of scientists, from Charles Darwin to Richard Lenski.
If you always had lingering questions about life itself, what it means to be alive, where we come from, and where we are going, consider studying biology to join the quest, to continue the valiant work laid down by our predecessors.
Good news: We are officially 102 days away from the summer break! Summer starts on May the 10th and class resumes on August the 29th, blessing us with a 16-week break. For college students, the summer holiday allows us to temporarily exit our current narrative and explore a multitude of thrilling new possibilities. It is great if you already have some adventure in mind. If not, here are some suggestions.
It’s that time of year again where clicking, typing, and being a human at 11:15AM has never seemed more stressful. That’s right: it’s course registration. I asked KSTEM president Rachel Arens to gather the best registration tips around.
Note: The following is a guest post from KSTEM, a club on campus with a mission to develop a strong and supportive scientific community. Email email@example.com for more information!
Register in the science quad with as few people as possible! Registration works smoothly if there aren’t many people per router.
Make sure you have at least two classes that you are genuinely excited about.
If there’s one class that you really need/want and is difficult to get into just put that class in first and hit submit; you don’t have to waste time filling up the slots before you hit submit the first time!
Make an excel sheet or Google Sheet so you can copy and paste!
Minimize your windows so they’re side by side and you don’t have to click between
Tell Duo NOT to remember you for 10 hours so it’s easier to log in and log out.
If there’s a popular class you really want, email the professor ahead of time asking to be in the class/put on the waitlist!
IT’S ALL GOING TO WORK OUT! Don’t panic! Everything will be ok.
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:
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.