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Nature And Nurture

 

Larry Johnson

 

Dedicated biology faculty generates enthusiasm

Assistant professor of biology Andy McCollum (left) collects and counts tadpoles with juniors Melissa Scranton and Nicholas Alexander during an ecology class outing at a nearby farm pond last fall.

It’s the last day of classes, but judging by the biology department faculty, it might as well be Day One.

At 1 p.m., chairman Jeff Cardon convenes a meeting of his department at Merle West Science Center, where the group is housed.
At 3 p.m., Andy McCollum peers into cottage cheese containers at ravenous dragon-fly larvae. They’re waiting to be fed wood frog tadpoles McCollum raised from eggs. McCollum and his students are studying predator-prey interactions. Nearby, in the spotless new greenhouse, decked out with kids’ wading pools that double as tadpole hatcheries, lecturer and lab instructor Laura Krouse waters plants.

Biology is a popular major at Cornell, which graduates about 25 students annually in the discipline. Faculty enthusiasm is one reason the major is the second most popular at Cornell, after psychology. Faculty accessibility is another, students say.

Assistant professor of biology Barbara Christie-Pope (left) and senior Leslie Dolmage examine a brain during "Human Anatomy and Physiology" last fall.

Members of the department say uncommonly good labs and facilities attract and keep excellent faculty working, on average, 70 hours each week.

“The professors in the biology department are always there, and they’re very available,” says Erin Burnight, a junior from Sioux City.
Supporting the six full-time faculty are three lab instructors (Krouse, Jennifer Hurley-O’Hara, and Don Wick), stockroom manager Linda Halsey, and Carol Brokel, who has been a faculty secretary since 1962.
Both teachers and students say One-Course-At-A-Time is especially suited to teaching biology ... and learning it. OCAAT is one reason Amber Crawford, a junior from Tama-Toledo, transferred from Luther College.

“I think it’s worked out better personally for me,” says Crawford, who hopes to become a pediatrician. “It is less stressful (than the semester system), because you have to juggle fewer subjects at once. It’s maybe a little more rushed, because you do a LOT in 3 H weeks. But I think I get a better grasp of what I’m trying to learn because I’m so immersed.”

The program in biochemistry and molecular biology is designed for students interested in the relationship between biology and chemistry, and gets support from both departments. Students who plan to go on to health professions often choose this major. About 10-15 students major in biochemistry and molecular biology each year. Craig Tepper, who teaches molecular biology courses, says many students in that program get jobs in research immediately after they graduate.

“With the 3 1/2 -week blocks, students really get a chance to do some relatively sophisticated research projects,” says Tepper.
Jason Kuehner, a junior in the molecular biology program, notes that once a research project is under way, students don’t have to waste classroom time tearing it down and putting materials away for the day, allowing more time for actual lab work.

“You can keep your experiments running, and you can come back in the evening if you need to do that,” he says. “The block system lets you connect what you hear in the morning in a lecture with what you do in the afternoon in the lab.”

Tepper applauds Cornell’s facilities—not only the library in West Science Center, but also the fact that One-Course-At-A-Time allows for separate lecture and lab rooms. Facilities include a variety of sophisticated scientific instruments, including centrifuges, PCR and DNA sequencing equipment, spectrophotometers, gas chromatographs and a liquid scintillation counter (used mostly as a luminometer). All are available for student use. Most were obtained through grants and gifts from friends of the college.

OCAAT also provides exceptional opportunities for field trips, both to relatively exotic locations like the Costa Rican rain forest and to a few minutes away in Iowa.

Bob Black teaches ecology courses, and Iowa field trips are an integral part of his classes. Black often takes students 40 minutes from Mount Vernon to a semi-secret site where they count rare terrestrial turtles. Keeping track of a threatened species is a good thing, Black says, but he also believes there are other, less-quantifiable, but dramatic advantages to field trips.

“With the block system, you don’t worry about having people back at a certain time, so you can do more,” he says. “But with the extended contact, people connect with one another more. They bond. Marching through a muddy forest together changes relationships between people. They work harder for you as an instructor.”

If Iowa turtles seem tame, try trekking to Costa Rica with Marty Condon in search of new species of flies. Faculty member Barbara Christie-Pope took a trip with Condon recently, and the two laugh as they recall Christie-Pope clinging Tarzan-like to a vine as she tried to capture one of the mystery flies.

Adventure is a part of the trips, Condon says, but it’s adventure in the name of science.

“If you work hard enough, you can actually name one of these flies,’’ she says. “But the real goal is to gain understanding of biodiver-sity and evolutionary specificity. There is a practical application as well. These flies are related to apple maggots and Mediterranean fruit flies but do not harm or feed on economically significant crops or other U.S. plants.”

It would be tough to get much more practical than Krouse did in a recent “Basic Botany for Beginners” class she taught. The course studied food systems, and students took a particularly close look at how their own food gets to them. They visited a worm farm near Swisher, compared and contrasted a variety of retail food outlets, planted a community garden, and ultimately cooked a huge meal.

Some of Christie-Pope’s teaching strategies are similarly practical. “It’s very difficult sometimes to keep certain topics interesting,” she says. “I can’t think of anything much duller than having to list brain structures and functions. But if you give students an MRI of a brain with a region of ‘blowout’—a stroke—and have them determine what the brain deficiency of that person would be, then it’s immediately more interesting because it’s real.”

One of Cardon’s classes teaches students another sort of practicality—the grant application process. “Students have to pick a topic, research it, create a proposal, and write it, all in 3 1/2 weeks,” he says. “That’s a lot.”

Students may do a lot of work in one block, but they get a lot back. Take it from an “outsider,” Kristopher Wright, a visiting faculty member who is moving on to another full-time teaching position at a university.

“This department is special,” he says. “What’s special about it are the people. These people commit themselves to the department, the block plan, and the students. And the students win.”

Larry Johnson is an editor at the Cedar Rapids Gazette and is a consultant to The Cornellian.

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