Worms crawl in and worms crawl out, but biology major Katie Rock ’23 has found a problematic variety that jumps right here in Kalamazoo.
Rock’s Senior Integrated Project (SIP), cataloging the earthworms inhabiting Lillian Anderson Arboretum, has unearthed an invasive species never before officially documented within our city, the jumping worm (scientific name Amynthas). Rock said all worms in Michigan are invasive species given that glaciers killed the native varieties during the Ice Age. The crawlers we have now mostly came from Europe.
“Most of the earthworms are good for agriculture and gardening,” Rock said. “In the forests, they’re not as beneficial, but they have benefits in producing and giving nutrients.”
Jumping worms, though, which come from places such as Korea and Japan, present their own problems. They have no natural predators, individual specimens can reproduce by themselves, and they go through a lifecycle in one season, so they’re faster to mature, Rock said.
“They originally came from Asia through tiny cocoons,” she said. “They get into potted plants and then people plant them, so they spread all over. There have been attempts to stop their spread, but there hasn’t been any solution.”
Jumping worms inhabit leaf litter and the top few inches of soil on the ground. Their movements, processes and quick metabolism change the soil’s texture, so it looks like coffee grounds, Rock said, stripping the soil of its nutrients, and potentially killing plants. They’ve been found in other Great Lakes region states such as Wisconsin and Minnesota. In Michigan, they were found for the first time in the Detroit area around 2008 and more recently in Grand Rapids.
Plus, with the crawlers in the arboretum, local residents are likely to find the jumping worms in local yards.
“If you see any, do not transfer any of your plants over to anyone else,” Rock said. “It’s actually recommended that we kill them because of their detrimental effects on ecosystems.”
Rock and her SIP advisor, Professor of Biology Ann Fraser, have found mostly juvenile jumping worms with a few adults in the arboretum, as expected because they start each year as eggs and take time to grow to adults. The species is identifiable thanks to their extreme movements that can be provoked by human touch, a glossy gray color that leaves them nearly translucent in their gastrointestinal regions, a flat ring-like structure called a clitellum that circles their body and serves as a reproductive organ, and small hairs, or bristles, that can be seen under a microscope.
“I’m going to do a GIS (geographic information system) map in my research, comparing where earthworms are found to where invasive species of plants are found,” Rock said. “We think there might be a correlation. It’s also possible that deer might be spreading them. For right now, the only place we’ve found them is close to Batts Pavilion. We have not found any yet on the other side of the power lines. We’re wondering if that’s because there’s an intersection where they haven’t crossed yet.”
Testing for jumping worms can be a heavy lift for Rock, requiring assistance from a golf cart as she hauls her equipment, including one gallon of mustard water for every test she intends to conduct during a stay at the arboretum.
The mustard water is just that: a mix of mustard powder and water that Rock pours on the ground within a given quadrant or sampling area. The mustard irritates the worms and forces them to the surface, where Rock collects them. She also records what she sees in the trees; collects a soil sample; clears away any vegetation and debris; measures the soil’s temperature, pH balance and moisture; and notes other bugs she finds.
“Sometimes I find a lot of worms and sometimes I find just a few,” Rock said. “After I collect my worms, I’ll measure them and put them in ethanol. I then look at them under the microscope, ID them and separate them in jars by type.”
If Rock finds more adults when she resamples as her work concludes this month, she can confirm a larger infestation. Long term, it might be impossible to get rid of all of the jumping worms, although figuring out how to isolate their locations within the arboretum would provide Rock with the type of experience she wants to have in preparing for a career.
“I want to go into environmental science and ecology, and I think this is a good start, especially with the experience in an invasive species,” Rock said. “The process of finding it, cutting it off and finding ways of preserving other areas from it is important. I hope to bring in that knowledge in grad school or in a job with some ideas for tackling a new problem, even if it’s not worms.”
Eli Edlefson ’23 would like to apologize to his elementary school science teachers for doubting them.
“In elementary school, teachers would say, ‘Science always starts with observation,’” Edlefson said. “Then you form a question. I was like, ‘I don’t really know how true that is. You’re just walking around and notice something?’ Then I got out here, and that is absolutely all I’m doing is walking around and noticing, ‘Oh, that’s weird.’ ‘Why is that there?’ ‘This plant has only interacted with this insect species; I wonder why.’ So I would like to apologize to all my teachers.”
“Here” is the Lillian Anderson Arboretum, and while it’s not entirely accurate to say that all Edlefson does there is walk around and notice things, it is a crucial piece of his Kalamazoo College summer fellowship and Senior Integrated Project.
Edlefson is continuing a native wildflower rehabilitation project begun by Professor of Biology Ann Fraser in 2019, which aimed to promote insect pollinator populations by planting a diverse mix of native plants. In 2019, Amy Cazier ’20 completed her SIP by conducting a plant survey and observing and recording plant and pollinator interactions.
WildflowersProject One of Several Fellowships
Several Kalamazoo College students are completing summer 2022 Environmental Stewardship fellowships through the Larry J. Bell ’80 Center for Environmental Stewardship and we are featuring some of their projects at kzoo.edu. Read on to learn about one of the environmental fellowships making a difference in the local community.
Now, Edlefson is following in Cazier’s footsteps, while occasionally forging his own path, as he surveys the plants and pollinators to assess how successful the biodiversity efforts have been. By summer’s end, he intends to have a comprehensive survey of which plants are growing along the Powerline Trail, where they grow, and which pollinators interact with which plants, along with a comprehensive recommendation for what work is needed to improve the biodiversity of the area.
“I’m comparing what Amy saw to what I see,” Edlefson said. “What’s taking hold? What did we put in the seed mix that I haven’t seen anywhere? Or, is this still a problem plant, like the invasive spotted knapweed?”
Edlefson has also made it his goal to collect a sample of every plant specimen he finds and create a wildflower guidebook.
“I’d like to have some details on the family and species, and some fun facts about it so you can actually connect to the life around you,” Edlefson said. “It’s so easy to walk by, like, ‘Oh, a flower,’ and keep going. I was guilty of that before. Now I know that this is a Deptford Pink, and if I tried really hard, I might be able to pull up a Latin name. When you know more, you appreciate being outside more.”
Learning an interesting fact about a plant makes learning botany more engaging for Edlefson. For example, Native Americans made tea using a small, hanging orange flower called spotted touch-me-not or common jewelweed, which they used as a cure for laziness.
A biology and physics double major who takes pride in having enjoyed “a charcuterie board” of classes in 11 different departments at K, Edlefson originally sought a research experience involving coastal or marine biology for his SIP. After meeting with Fraser, his class’s SIP coordinator, she connected him with the native wildflower rehabilitation project.
While Edlefson has loved bugs his whole life, he had no formal entomology training and very little botany knowledge when he began the project.
“In high school, I was in Science Olympiad, and every time the entomology event was open, I would hop on that,” Edlefson said. “It’s been nice getting a more formal identification process, having Dr. Fraser, who’s like our resident entomologist, and having it be my job to go and collect bugs. I’ve learned a lot already. I never knew how to distinguish wasps and bees besides just eyeballing it; now I know the bees have hairs that are feathered so they collect more pollen, so when you look at them under the microscope, it’s very obvious which one is which.”
Similarly, when he began the project, “I would never have been excited about a plant,” Edlefson said. “If you had said, ‘What’s that flower?’ I would have been like, ‘Yellow.’”
Edlefson has learned a lot about the plants along the Powerline Trail with the help of Fraser and local botanist Russ Schipper. About every other day, Edlefson drives out to the Arboretum on West Main Street and spends the morning surveying his area, which is about 750 meters long and encompasses all the meadow space on either side of the powerline. Initially, his surveys covered little ground, as he had to look up every plant.
“My first day, Dr. Fraser was out here trying to teach me how to use my handy dandy wildflower guide,” Edlefson said. “Of course, she knew everything that was out here, and she was just patiently waiting for me to flip through all the pages and try to figure out what I was doing.”
Now, he can cover his whole territory in a morning. Some days, Edlefson takes notes on what plants are blooming where and collects specimens to press. Other days, he conducts pollinator surveys, either walking 15-minute transects, recording what he sees and occasionally using a vacuum tube to collect specimens, or with a focal survey, sitting in one place and observing a specific plant for 15 minutes to watch for pollinators interacting with the plant.
Sometimes Edlefson uses a camera from the lab to take clear photos of plants for identification. He also uses the iNaturalist app, and the related Seek app, to identify species, learn more and contribute useful data.
Before the project ends, he hopes to conduct night surveys to see if the pollinator landscape is different at dusk.
In the afternoons, Edlefson processes and examines his specimens and organizes his data in the lab.
“The end goal is my candid suggestion about what looks good and what could be improved,” Edlefson said. “The goal of my project is to see if we’re bringing more pollinators in and supporting more of them; I’m looking for better quality and quantity.”
Throughout the course of the summer, Edlefson has learned that he also has a series of deadlines to contend with as various flowers bloom and die.
“If I want to look at a plant, I need to do that before the flowers go away,” Edlefson said. “Sometimes I realize a flower might not still be there next week, so I need to get out there and get a sample before then. It’s not something that I was expecting, to get an idea of what the bloom periods are, when plants are coming and going, and what I should be expecting to see. I’m learning more than I thought I would.
“I’m very much enjoying my time out here. It is a million times better than sitting in an office or just the lab all day. I’m very lucky. It’s a great job.”
Almost two years ago, Maddy Harding ’22 found both a way back to Kalamazoo and an inside perspective on the COVID-19 pandemic.
After being sent home with the rest of the Kalamazoo College campus in spring 2020—home for Harding being a tiny town in the middle of the Rocky Mountains in Colorado—she returned to Kalamazoo about five months later, in July 2020.
“I didn’t really have a plan, but I wanted to be back in Kalamazoo,” Harding said. “I had a roommate, so we found an apartment and looked for jobs.”
Harding quickly found a position with Genemarkers, a genetic research lab in Kalamazoo that had pivoted in the spring from its previous focus on personalized medicine and product development to COVID testing.
“I would go to work at 4 p.m. and stay until we finished, which some nights was 10 or 11 p.m.,” Harding said. “The facilities test all day and then they send all their samples in and they want results the next day. All the samples come in between 4 and 6 p.m., cooler after cooler after cooler. We were at one point in the winter receiving 3,000-4,000 samples a day. There would be coolers stacked to the ceiling full of patient samples.”
The lab worked to maintain a 24- to 48-hour turnaround time on all samples.
“We were just trying to get through as many samples as possible in a short time while also being accurate and careful,” Harding said. “We were in full PPE [personal protective equipment]—scrubs, gown, shield, mask, two pairs of gloves. There were definitely stressful situations and a bit of fear, especially at the beginning, because that was before vaccines and I was touching COVID every single day. My coworkers are great, though, and I felt like I was making an impact on a lot of people. I’m glad I was able to help in some way.”
Even as K returned to in-person classes and the schedule grew more challenging, the job offered Harding inside information on the state of the pandemic. Harding found it interesting to see how the number of samples and positivity rates fluctuated and to understand the PCR testing process.
“My friends would always ask me for more details about what was actually going on,” Harding said. “I could tell them what pharmacies to go to at the peak times when our lab had one of the shortest turn-around times.”
At times, Genemarkers has provided COVID testing for various pharmacies, nursing homes, assisted living facilities and colleges, including K.
“That was tough at times,” Harding said. “The samples come with requisition forms that have the name and all the information for the patient. I would see people I sit next to in class, see their names on a COVID test. I don’t ever see the results with the name, and of course with HIPAA privacy laws I couldn’t say anything. Even though it’s all confidential, it was an interesting dynamic to navigate.”
As the rate of testing has slowed, Harding has transitioned into a research-and-development role with Genemarkers, testing the efficacy and safety of various skin care products.
Working at Genemarkers has taught Harding important lessons about working in a team, problem solving and working under pressure.
The job has also boosted Harding’s lab skills, which helped when working on her Senior Integrated Project, researching the neuroprotective effect of a drug targeting serotonin receptors in C. elegans, a type of roundworm.
“We looked to see if the drug has neuroprotective effects and it did, so that was exciting,” Harding said. “We did have some significant results. Neurodegenerative diseases are a big problem. There are a lot of different types and one of the problems in treating them is that they all have different mechanisms of action of neuronal death. A lot of treatments look at each one specifically. This research looked at them more collectively to see if there was more of a common process of cell death that is occurring in all of the different diseases.”
Although much more research is needed, Harding’s work could eventually contribute to a potential treatment for neurodegenerative diseases.
The Genemarkers position has also had connections to Harding’s coursework at K. At the height of COVID testing, she had to keep a dream journal for a dreams and consciousness class and discovered that about half her dreams were stress dreams about working in the lab.
“Right now, I’m in a genetics class and I’m learning all the little details I was missing for understanding the actual science I was doing,” Harding said. “Yes, I know I’m isolating RNA and then amplifying that using PCR, but what does that actually mean on the microscopic level? I’m learning that now in class so it’s cool to more fully understand the work I’ve been doing for so long. That’s a fascinating intersection between school and work.”
Harding is currently applying for medical school and hoping to start that in fall 2023.
“I just accepted a job for a research technician position for next year, for my gap year, and I think the Genemarkers experience made me a competitive applicant because I’ve worked there for so long and have learned a variety of useful skills,” Harding said.
The job, at Northwestern University Feinberg School of Medicine, involves research on mitochondrial function. After graduation, Harding will move to Chicago for the job. Many of Harding’s K experiences will apply to the lab tech work.
For example, she will be working with rodents, which she has done via psychology research during her time at K. Harding helped run a taste aversion learning trial which has possible implications for cancer patients who often develop aversions to certain foods during chemotherapy treatments.
In addition, Harding took a topics class for seniors on neurodegenerative disorders in the fall that operated like a journal club.
“We read different papers every single week and presented the findings of the scientific literature to the class,” Harding said. “I got exposed to a lot of cutting-edge techniques that are being used and now I’ll be using them next year.”
Harding learned about the lab tech opportunity through a professor’s connection to a K alumnus who works in the lab.
“It will be cool to talk to him about K,” Harding said. “It’s always fun to meet K alumni outside of K in a different context. You share this niche experience because it is such a small school and has so many traditions.”
The Senior Integrated Project (SIP) of Grace Hancock ’22 has encouraged Associate Professor of Biology Santiago Salinas to extend Hancock’s inquiries overseas.
Salinas has received a Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program award, allowing him to go to his native Argentina this fall. There, he will study whether global warming could threaten fish with temperature-dependent sex-determination. In these species, cold waters tend to produce more females, and warm waters tend to produce more males.
Hancock, in Salinas’ fish ecology lab, studied temperature-dependent sex-determination in the Atlantic silverside, which are saltwater foragers that grow to be no longer than 6 inches in length. Salinas, in a similar way, will research Argentine fish such as pejerrey, which are freshwater residents.
“I’m excited to go and expand my professional network, and without Grace, I wouldn’t have had this opportunity,” Salinas said. “I was not really working on temperature sex determination until she wanted to.”
In addition to Hancock, Salinas credited K faculty members such as Professor of Romance Languages and Literature Enid Valle, Professor of Biology Ann Fraser, William Weber Chair of Social Science Amy Elman, Wen Chao Chen Professor of East Asian Social Sciences Dennis Frost, Margaret and Roger Scholten Associate Professor of Political Science John Dugas, and Jo-Ann and Robert Stewart Professor of Art Tom Rice for offering their application assistance and sharing their previous experiences in successfully seeking Fulbright honors.
“I’ll be interacting closely with Latinx biologists, and one of my hopes is to set up a network whereby scholars there who struggle with English can connect with classes here at K,” Salinas said. “My students would help with the scientific writing and offer advice to the biologists in a real-world way.”
The opportunity also is expected to begin a long-term collaboration with a faculty member at the Instituto Tecnológico de Chascomús, create a course on evolutionary ecology for that institution’s undergraduate and graduate students, and establish connections that would allow Argentine biologists to serve as potential research mentors for K students.
Salinas is one of about 800 U.S. citizens who will teach, conduct research or provide expertise abroad for the 2022-23 academic year through Fulbright. Those citizens are selected based on their academic and professional achievement, as well as their record of service and demonstrated leadership. The awards are funded through the U.S. Department of State and the J. William Fulbright Foreign Scholarship Board.
The Fulbright Program is the U.S. government’s international education-exchange program designed to build connections between U.S. citizens and people from other countries. The program is funded through an annual Congressional appropriation made to the Department of State. Participating governments and host institutions, corporations and foundations around the world also support the program, which operates in more than 160 countries.
Since 1946, the Fulbright Program has given more than 390,000 students, scholars, teachers, artists and professionals in a variety of backgrounds and fields opportunities to study, teach and conduct research, exchange ideas and contribute solutions to international problems.
Thousands of Fulbright alumni have achieved distinction in many fields, including 61 who have been awarded the Nobel Prize, 89 who have received Pulitzer Prizes and 76 MacArthur Fellows. For more information about the Fulbright program, visit its website.
Two Kalamazoo College biology faculty members, a K student and an Oberlin College student from Kalamazoo were among the volunteers who participated in a global research project that proves humans are affecting evolution through urbanization and climate change.
Professor of Biology Binney Girdler, Associate Professor of Biology Santiago Salinas, Ben Rivera ’18 and Otto Kailing contributed to the Global Urban Evolution Project (GLUE), published Thursday in the journal Science. The investigation shows that white clover plants found in Kalamazoo, for example, will have more in common with others in similar cities around the world than those in rural regions, even local ones. That’s evident because the study shows that clover in many cities produce less hydrogen cyanide as a defense mechanism against herbivores with herbivores being less abundant in cities. Other cities showed no gradient, perhaps because hydrogen cyanide increases clovers’ tolerance to water stress, signaling an environmental driver of evolution prompted by humans with increasing temperatures, additional pollutants and less water.
“We’ve known about these differences for at least a decade now, but it’s always been researched in small or very localized studies, comparing rural versus urban environments,” Salinas said. “The novelty of this work is that it’s being replicated across lots of cities and gradients, most with similar results.”
White clover was chosen for GLUE’s research because it’s one of the few organisms present in almost every city. Girdler collected the clover locally along Westnedge Avenue near the Kalamazoo River to do her part alongside 286 other scientists in 26 countries who gathered more than 110,000 clover samples.
Those samples—after being frozen, ground up and analyzed through sample paper and reactive compounds—helped researchers sequence more than 2,500 clover genomes to reveal the genetic basis for their changes in urban areas. The massive dataset produced from the project will be analyzed for years to come, making Thursday’s publication just the beginning of GLUE’s research. With scientists knowing that humans drive evolution in cities across the planet, they can start developing strategies to better conserve rare species, allowing the species to better adapt to urban environments, while scientists also prevent unwanted pests and diseases from doing the same.
“I think the local interest is that this shows we’re not isolated,” Girdler said. “This shows that climate change is real and urbanization is real. This is a good study to show humans have had a huge impact, not just locally, but globally. There’s nothing unique about the Kalamazoo case. We only understand the impact of it when it’s embedded within this giant global study of 160 other cities.”
Marc Johnson and Rob Ness, both biology faculty members at the University of Toronto Mississauga, spearheaded the global project along with James Santangelo, a Ph.D. student. Salinas and Girdler both expressed admiration for that group for organizing the work and maintaining communication throughout the project.
“It’s fun to be a part of it,” Girdler said. “It represents what I think science has to give to the world. It’s connective and it helps us figure out what we should be doing through a global effort. It made me an optimist in the middle of the pandemic.”
“We did it because this was a cool idea and it was nice to be able to help,” Salinas said. “It made me feel like a citizen scientist who added to the body of science without having to worry about prestige.”
For bird enthusiasts like Keller, a biology and philosophy double major from Kalamazoo, a Big Year is a personal challenge or an informal competition to spot and identify as many bird species as possible within a calendar year in a specific geographic area. Although he’s always had an interest in birding and completed a Big Year with a mentor in 2012, 2021 was the first time he attempted one by himself thanks to his pursuits during the pandemic triggering a desire.
“In the spring of 2020, I was back at my parents’ house, where I had access to a car,” Keller said. “Attending K for me was completely online and asynchronous. Every day, from sunup to sundown, I was driving across the state, and then I would do my classwork at night. I woke up the next day and did the exact same thing. I didn’t even make plans for Saturday, or Friday night for that matter, because I knew I wanted to be up at 7 a.m. and bird until sundown.”
Such passions helped him set a goal of documenting 300 species of birds in 2021, all within Michigan’s borders, a benchmark he exceeded by finding 311 varieties. Keller doesn’t know exactly how far he drove to accomplish that feat, although he estimates he traveled more than 5,000 miles just in trips to Whitefish Point, an area on Lake Superior near Paradise, Michigan, in the Upper Peninsula, more than 350 miles from Kalamazoo.
“It amazes me when I think about how high gas prices are right now, but I’m driving every weekend,” Keller said. “I’m often either in Holland or St. Joseph. Then, if I’m not at Whitefish Point, I’ll sometimes end up on the east side of the state. If I’m chasing a specific bird, I might even end up in Marquette County. On Thanksgiving in 2020, my buddy and I drove from Kalamazoo to Copper Harbor, which is at the very tip of the Keweenaw Peninsula so we could find a Cassin’s finch.”
If driving about 600 miles to Copper Harbor seems random, you might be surprised. There’s a strategy to birding through a Big Year that begins with a list of birds that can commonly be spotted in Michigan. Along with those, it’s important to know the migrant varieties that pass through the state.
“You get about 295 to 300 birds you know you’ll see if you’re birding every weekend and maybe a little during the week,” Keller said. “Then there’s a range of about 40 to 45 birds that are not Michigan resident birds. They don’t breed here and they don’t regularly migrate here. They only show up in Michigan as vagrants, and to be really competitive in a Big Year, you need to make sure you’re getting a large portion of those potential vagrants.”
Some of those vagrants stop in areas known as migrant traps.
“It’s not necessarily that the habitat in a migrant trap makes it really good for birds, but it’s the only good habitat for a three- or four-mile radius around it, especially if it’s less than 100 acres,” Keller said. “What you get then is a high concentration of these migrant birds.”
The best migrant trap for Keller is Tiscornia Park at the St. Joseph River with Benton Harbor to the north and the city of St. Joseph to the south. Thanks to its geography, the area attracts water birds and birds that migrate south. He also closely watches areas such as the Muskegon Wastewater Treatment Plant, which has a large lake and an unimpeded shoreline.
For even rarer birds, Keller relies on modern technology, especially eBird, an app that aggregates information and sends alerts on what birds are being found by spotters, when and where. If Keller believes a spotter is reputable, he will drive to a bird’s reported location to find it.
Such tools and strategies allowed Keller to find birds from an ash-throated fly catcher to a Roseate spoonbill in numbers from one to 60 across the state including some species that are rare in Michigan.
“I was surprised that I reached my goal of 300 so quickly in early September,” Keller said. “I had a lot of time after that to focus on a few of the rarer birds. In October, I was birding with some friends at Holland State Park in this campground, and we came across a bird that we first thought was a late orchard oriole, which was cool in its own right, because it really shouldn’t be here past August. And then we followed it around to get better looks at it, and it actually turned out to be a western tanager, which really doesn’t belong within 500 miles of here. It’s not a mind-boggling record, but it’s something I didn’t expect to find. It’s fair to say I just happened to be in the right place at the right time to find one of the biggest highlights of the year.”
Keller will present his findings to the Audubon Society of Kalamazoo at 7:30 p.m. Monday, February 28.
“I’m going to go through some birds that I stumbled across, some birds that I chased and some epic stories of driving six hours at a time, covering 450 miles,” Keller said. “I think there are even some funny stories of ways that I’ve hurt myself in 2021, so it’s going to be interesting.”
Grace Hancock ’22 and her senior integrated project (SIP) are proving that something fishy is going on with the rising water temperatures caused by climate change.
Hancock, a biology major and Spanish minor from Portland, Oregon, recently conducted her SIP in the fish ecology lab at K with guidance from Roger F. and Harriet G. Varney Assistant Professor of Biology Santiago Salinas. Through it, she administered an analysis of Atlantic silverside fish, foragers that grow to be no longer than 6 inches in length, which exhibit temperature-dependent sex determination.
“When the temperature is generally colder, the fish produce more females,” Hancock said. “When it’s warmer, they produce more males because the females need to reach a bigger size before they hit sexual maturity.”
Such a process is nature’s way of ensuring optimal numbers of males and females along with ideal conditions for breeding. However, that only works if their water temperatures follow seasonal patterns that are unaffected by climate change. As a result, climate change can cause problems for not only a variety of temperature-dependent sex determination-exhibiting fish, but humans as well.
“Skewed sex ratios in populations are crazy to monitor because they mean there aren’t as many viable mates for them and it’s dangerous for the species,” Hancock said. “I can see how these fish are going to need our help and how climate change needs to slow down if we want to continue to explore and work with these resources that we have in our oceans. If some fish are struggling and some are not, it will create an imbalance.”
Thanks to her research and her passion for science, Hancock is a great example of someone the United Nations is celebrating today, February 11, on the International Day of Women and Girls in Science. The day, first marked in 2015, encourages women scientists and targets equal access to and participation in science for women and girls.
Such a day is desired because U.N. statistics show that fewer than 30 percent of scientific researchers in the world are women and only about 30 percent of all female students select fields in science, technology, engineering or math (STEM) to pursue in their higher education. Only about 22 percent of the professionals in cutting edge fields such as artificial intelligence are women. Plus, representation among women is especially low professionally in fields such as information and communication technology at 3 percent; natural science, mathematics and statistics at 5 percent; and engineering at 8 percent.
“This happens in high school, college, middle school and as far back as I can remember,” Hancock said. “Women in science classes have to fight for their place. I feel like we’re getting better, but even in college, I feel talked over. I feel like I don’t have as much of a voice or authority in those communities. There are extra roadblocks for women to stick around in STEM, and it can be taxing emotionally and mentally to experience those environments.”
Hancock is among the many women in science at K working to reverse such trends. In addition to her marine biology work, she has enjoyed taking classes involving ecology and animal behavior, while encouraging students new to K to stick with the sciences and seek support systems. Hancock had her own support systems even outside the classroom through the Kalamazoo Birding Club and the women’s swimming and diving team.
“There’s so much research and so much to be said about staying healthy physically, and how that helps you mentally,” Hancock said of her athletics experience. “Even if I’m having a hard trimester, taking classes like organic chemistry or calculus, if I’m working out regularly or I have a team of women supporting me in the water, then my classroom work is going to be better. I would say almost half of the women on the swimming and diving team were STEM majors or taking STEM classes and we consistently had one of the highest GPAs among the athletics programs at K. It was an academically-driven community and I loved being a student-athlete.”
In targeting life after K, Hancock obtained class credit by working for a trimester in an internship at Sarett Nature Center in Benton Harbor, Michigan.
“That was a really great experience, because I got to visit every week and see how the naturalists worked,” Hancock said. “We used GIS equipment to survey and record the locations of different plants and demographic data on the fish living in streams. It was observational data, which was great exposure for me as someone who is more research focused.”
After graduation, Hancock hopes to obtain a short-term marine biology job that might involve working in a lab or on a boat to monitor marine mammals. After that, she would like to obtain a Fulbright scholarship in a country in South America to work on her Spanish skills and later find a graduate program that suits her. In the meantime, she will continue mentoring younger students, while following in the footsteps of students who started at K before her.
“Mentorship from our professors is important, but there’s a lot to be said for women looking after women in the classroom,” she said. “I have a few students who have graduated as my role models and I hope to emulate them for younger students. I’m a TA for Form and Function and some other entry-level biology classes. Through that I’m able to work with first-year students. I’m continuing that legacy that the older students gave to me.”
Kalamazoo College is pleased to welcome the following faculty members to campus this fall:
Assistant Professor of Spanish Tris Faulkner
Tris Faulkner, who is originally from Jamaica, lived in Chile for about two years, working as a translator and interpreter at a prominent law firm before earning a Ph.D. in Spanish linguistics from Georgetown University. She also has professional experience as a translator and interpreter at the Embassy of Venezuela, and in similar roles at a legal firm and a business school in North Carolina.
Faulkner has lived in Spain and visited various Spanish-speaking countries, experiences which have helped her to observe the diversity that characterizes the Spanish language. Her research investigates the semantics and pragmatics of variation in verbal mood, tense, and aspect, as related to the Romance language family, English, and Jamaican Creole.
In addition to her Ph.D., Faulkner has master’s degrees from Georgetown (M.Sc. in Spanish linguistics) and Wake Forest University (M.A. in interpreting and translation studies), and a bachelor’s degree from Louisiana State University (B.A. in Spanish language and literature and international studies). She will teach seminars in Spanish linguistics, as well as various other courses in the upcoming academic year.
Assistant Professor of Religion Sohini Pillai
Sohini Pillai will teach courses this academic year on religious traditions in South Asia. She is a comparatist of South Asian religious literature and her area of specialization is the Mahabharata and Ramayana epic narrative traditions with a focus on retellings created in Hindi and Tamil.
Pillai is the co-editor of Many Mahabharatas (State University of New York Press, 2021), an introduction to diverse retellings of the Mahabharata tradition in the forms of classical dramas, premodern vernacular poems, regional performance traditions, commentaries, graphic novels, political essays, novels, and contemporary theater productions. She’s also a member of the Steering Committee for the Hinduism Unit at the American Academy of Religion.
Pillai has a Ph.D. in South and Southeast Asian studies from the University of California, Berkeley; a master’s degree in Middle Eastern, South Asian, and African studies from Columbia University; and a bachelor’s degree in South Asia studies and theatre studies from Wellesley College.
Assistant Professor of Theatre Quincy Thomas
Quincy Thomas earned his Ph.D. in theatre and his performance studies certification from Bowling Green State University. His research centers on subjects including counter-storytelling, Black performativity in American culture, representations of the marginalized in popular culture, comedic and solo performance and performative writing. At K, he will teach directing, theatre history and playwriting, with further prior experience teaching theatre, performance studies and film.
His courses are informed on issues of cultural marginalization and misrepresentation in the arts, specifically of racial and ethnic minorities, women and members of the LGBTQ+ community. His work has been published in peer-reviewed academic journals, including the International Review of Qualitative Research and Puppetry International, and presented at national conferences, including the Mid-America Theatre Conference, the International Congress of Qualitative Inquiry, and the Mid-Atlantic Popular and American Culture Association (MAPACA). He currently serves as president of MAPACA. His most recent directorial offering was Robert Patrick’s Play-by-Play: A Spectacle of Ourselves: A Verse Farce in Two Acts. Thomas also has a background in acting. Some of his favorite roles played include Christopher in Joe Penhall’s Blue/Orange, Albert in Bruce Norris’ Clybourne Park, and most recently the role of Actor in Nassim Soleimanpour’s White Rabbit; Red Rabbit.
Assistant Professor of Economics Darshana Udayanganie
Darshana Udayanganie earned her Ph.D., with specializations in environmental economics and college teaching, and a master’s degree in economics from the University of New Hampshire. She also has a master’s degree in resource economics and policy from the University of Maine and a bachelor’s degree from the University of Peradeniya, Sri Lanka. Before joining K in 2017 as a visiting assistant professor, she taught at Central Michigan University from 2014 to 2017, Merrimack College in 2013 and 2014, and the University of New Hampshire’s global student success program from 2011 to 2014.
Her current research focuses on urban economics and environmental economics. She also has published book chapters on economic growth in relation to military expenditure and international trade.
Assistant Professor of Japanese Brian White
Brian White will teach courses in Japanese language, literature and culture at K. He specializes in contemporary (post-1945) Japanese popular culture and media studies.
He earned his Ph.D. at the University of Chicago, where he wrote a dissertation on 1960s Japanese sci-fi literature and film, asking specifically, “What can a genre do?” He will delve into that history when he teaches a course in the winter term this year on Japanese science fiction and media history.
White earned a bachelor’s degree in East Asian languages and civilizations at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. Across his undergraduate and graduate careers, he has spent a total of two and a half years living in Japan, primarily in Tokyo, Yokohama and Kyoto.
Assistant Professor of Chinese Yanshuo Zhang
Yanshuo Zhang’s research addresses multiethnic Chinese identities in literary and visual cultures produced in China and the U.S. Her research on multiethnic Chinese cultural productions helps diversify scholarly understanding of and teaching about modern Chinese national culture.
She was a lecturer in Stanford University’s Program in Writing and Rhetoric (PWR) from 2018 through 2020, where she designed classes on cross-cultural explorations of diversity, particularly in Asia and the U.S. She also has been a post-doctoral fellow at the University of Michigan.
She earned a bachelor’s degree from St. Catherine University and a Ph.D. from Stanford University.
Visiting Assistant Professor Vijayan Sundararaj
Vijayan Sundararaj leads a biology course this term in ecology and conservation. He has prior education experience as a lecturer, teaching assistant and topic lecturer between Lakehead University in Thunder Bay, Canada, and Texas A&M University-Kingsville. His teaching interests include evolutionary ecology concepts, animal behavior, foraging behavior, predator-prey interactions, conservation biology, wildlife ecology, waterfowl ecology, mammalogy, spatial ecology, and introductory geographic information systems.
Sundararaj received a bachelor’s degree with a specialty in zoology from Gujarat University in India before earning a master’s degree in ecology from Ben-Gurion University of the Negev, Israel; a geographic information systems applications specialist graduate certificate from Sir Sandford Fleming College in Canada and a doctorate in forest sciences and wildlife ecology from Lakehead University.
Visiting Assistant Professor Eunice Uhm
Eunice Uhm specializes in modern and contemporary art, with a transnational focus on the United States and East Asia. Her work examines the conditions of migration and the diasporic aesthetic subjectivities in the works of contemporary Japanese and South Korean art from the 1960s to the present. She has previously taught courses on modern and contemporary art, East Asian art, and Asian American studies at Ohio State University. She has organized panels and presented her work on Asian American art at national conferences such as CAA. She is an active member of numerous grassroots community organizations for Asian Americans and immigrant rights, and she is involved in immigrant rights campaigns such as Love has no borders: A call for justice in our immigration system. Her essay, “Constructing Asian American Political and Aesthetic Subjectivities: Contradictions in the Works of Ruth Asawa,” is forthcoming (Verge: Studies in Global Asias, University of Minnesota Press).
Uhm received a master’s degree and a doctorate in the history of art from the Ohio State University. At K, she teaches courses on Asian and Asian American art, art and race, and transnationalism.
Visiting Assistant Professor Fungisai Musoni
Fungisai Musoni has joined the history department where she will teach courses in African civilizations, decolonization in West and Southern Africa, and U.S.-Africa relations since World War II.
Musoni has prior teaching experience in African literature, American politics and global issues, and social studies between the Ohio State University, Georgia State University, Gwinnett County Schools in Atlanta and the Zimbabwe Ministry of Education and Culture.
She fluently reads, writes and speaks the African languages of Shona and Manyika. Her education includes a bachelor’s degree in economic history and Shona from the University of Zimbabwe, Harare; master’s degrees in political science and history from Georgia State University and Mercer University respectively; and a doctorate in African American and African Studies from the Ohio State University.
Visiting Assistant Professor Badru-Deen Barry
Badru-Deen Barry teaches Introductory chemistry and biochemistry at K this fall.
His education includes a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Fourah Bay College in Freetown, Sierra Leone, master’s degrees in chemistry from Northeast Normal University in China and Michigan State University, and a doctorate in chemistry from Michigan State.
He previously served Michigan State and Northeast Normal as a graduate research assistant, Société Générale de Surveillance in Freetown, Sierra Leone, as port supervisor and chemist, and Fourah Bay College as a laboratory and teaching assistant.
Visiting Assistant Professor Mikela Zhezha-Thaumanavar
Mikela Zhezha-Thaumanavar is teaching courses in Spanish this fall as well as a course in foreign language teaching methods. In addition, she serves as the coordinator for the Spanish Teaching Assistants at K. She received her bachelor’s degree, master’s degree and doctorate in Spanish linguistics from Western Michigan University.
She has previously taught courses in Spanish at Western Michigan University, Davenport University, and Kalamazoo Community College. She also served WMU as a guest professor, teaching in the institution’s Summer Translation Program. She previously has worked in translation and speaks Albanian and Italian in addition to English and Spanish.
Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Mills
Jennifer Mills is leading courses including seminars in psychology and health psychology this term. Mills holds a bachelor’s degree from the University of Georgia, master’s degrees from Georgia College and State University and Western Michigan University, and a doctorate from WMU.
She is working on an executive master’s in public health at Emory University with an emphasis in prevention science. For the past 10 years, Mills has owned and operated MindBodyWell, a private counseling practice that focuses on science-based approaches to stress, depression and anxiety.
Mills is an active member of the Institute for Public Scholarship, a local, anti-racist organization that works on issues of place and belonging. Her research interests focus on preventing and mitigating the impact of early childhood adversity on health.
Visiting Assistant Professor Robert Mowry
Robert Mowry is teaching two sections of Introduction to Society and Culture offered by the Department of Anthropology and Sociology. His additional teaching interests include quantitative methods, disaster, the intersection of politics and the environment, and ways of seeing and knowing.
Mowry comes to Kalamazoo College from the University of Notre Dame, where he recently earned his Ph.D. in sociology. Previously, he earned master’s degrees from the University of Notre Dame and the University of Sheffield, and a B.A. from Earlham College.
As a teacher-scholar of disaster and politics, Mowry employs multiple methods to study the processes and outcomes of globally diverse, high-stakes political arenas—from post-disaster contentious politics in the U.S. and Japan to the gendered dynamics of protest participation in Europe. A related stream of research looks at how cultural processes of learning, memory, and thinking spur spontaneous laughter outbursts during Supreme Court oral arguments. His work has been published in Sociological Theory.
Visiting Assistant Professor Jennifer Perry
Jennifer Perry leads courses at K including General Psychology, Sensation and Perception, and Psychopharmacology in the Department of Psychology. Her credentials include a Bachelor of Arts from St. Olaf College and a Ph.D. from the University of Minnesota. Perry’s research includes studies on the ethics of laboratory animal research and the role of impulsive behavior in drug abuse.
Pull your honey close and get ready for some facts about the super food and honey bees courtesy of Kalamazoo College Biology Professor Ann Fraser and her entomology class.
September is National Honey Month, which prompted us to ask Fraser’s students some questions about honey. As luck would have it, the students have been preparing to take an annual field trip to the Kalamazoo Nature Center, where they see an active hive of honey bees, courtesy of the Kalamazoo Bee Club. The students learn how honey is made, handle the casts where the honey is harvested from a hive, and occasionally see the queen among the thousands of bees.
“They become fascinated,” Fraser said of the experience. “Some of them are a little scared of bees at first, maybe because they had a bad experience at one point. But over time, as we’re there for the hour, they get closer to the hive. Eventually, they’re actually holding the frames from the hive. It’s surprising how heavy they can be with bare hands because each frame weighs about eight pounds.”
The number of honey bees around the world is dropping because of pesticide use, habitat loss, a drop in their food supply, and Colony Collapse Disorder, a phenomenon that occurs when a combination of these factors and varroa mites, a honey bee pest, combine to kill the worker bees. That potentially could threaten the amount of honey available in the world’s food supply, and cause problems related to pollination and agriculture.
“Every year we see at least 30 percent of hives die off over the winter,” Fraser said. “It’s kind of a new normal in the beekeeping industry.”
The good news is citizens can help protect honey bees and support the creation of honey by planting a variety of native wildflowers.
“Honey bees aren’t native to North America,” Fraser said. “They were brought over in the 1600s from Europe, not for pollination, but to make honey and beeswax products. They’ve been here ever since. By planting wildflowers, we’re providing food resources for bees and other pollinators, so that we can help beekeepers keep them healthy.”
Fraser’s students were busy bees in helping us find more answers to our questions about honey and honey bees. Here’s what they had to say.
How long have humans been harvesting honey from honey bee hives?
The earliest records of humans consuming bee honey and wax are about 10,000 years old as shown in prehistoric drawings in caves. Drawings found in Spain, about 7,000 years old, depict the practice of beekeeping. According to Queen Bee Farms, there is also a 15,000-year-old painting of a woman climbing a rope ladder to collect honey on the side of a cliff. – Joergen and Jack
Why is honey important for the bees themselves and their colonies?
Honey is a great fuel source for bees. Large amounts of it are made and stored to be consumed during the cold months. Bees use stored honey and pollen to feed their larvae. It’s an energy-rich food source that gives the bees the energy they need to vibrate and take flight. – Molly and Camilia
Why is honey vital to the world’s food supply?
If not for honey, honey bees would starve in the winter months. This would be a major issue for world food security, as 71 of the 100 crop varieties that account for 90% of the world’s food are pollinated by bees, according to the Center for Food Safety. From the human perspective, the sweet taste of honey has made it a sought-after treat and sweetener for millennia. It can also be used to make a fermented drink, mead, which is making a comeback in the brewing industry these days. – Noah and Evan
What types of bees are there in a honey bee hive?
Worker bees can account for up to 60,000 individuals in a colony. They’re reproductively-underdeveloped female honey bees, performing all the work for the colony. Young workers stay inside to perform nest cleaning and nurse duties. They move on to become receivers and storers of incoming nectar and pollen. Near the end of their six-week life they leave the hive as foragers to collect nectar and pollen. The queen is a fully-fertile female that specializes in egg production. Typically, there is only one queen per colony and it produces pheromones that regulate the colony’s behavior. Drones are male bees that account for up to 500 individuals in a colony during the spring and summer. The drones fly from the hive and mate midair with the queens from other colonies. – Lia and Penny
Do other types of bees (i.e. non-honey bees) make honey?
Honey is a general term that refers to the nectar processed by insects. Humans generally consume only honey from honey bees because they form very large colonies that store it in abundance. – Zach and Rina
What variables affect the color and flavor of different varieties of honey?
Honey varies in taste depending on the flowers the honey bees visit to collect nectar. Clover honey is light yellow and has a mild and sweet taste. Eucalyptus honey, common in Australia, has a slight menthol aftertaste. Buckwheat honey tastes like molasses and is very dark in color. Dandelion honey has a sweet floral taste and is bright golden yellow. Manuka honey, from New Zealand, is a gold color and is used as a topical ointment for MRSA, stings, infections and burns. Sourwood honey has a buttery or caramel taste. Goldenrod is dark with a sweet, licorice-like aftertaste. Wildflower honey comes from many different flowers and can taste different each time. In general, the darker the honey, the bolder the flavor. – Maci and Gabby
What threats assail honey bees and the world’s supply of honey?
Common threats to honey bees include diseases such as American and European foulbrood, chalkbrood and nosema; some varieties of beetles and mites; wax moths, which can damage a hive’s structure; global warming and droughts; forest fires; and Colony Collapse Disorder, which could be caused by pests, pesticides, habitat changes, stressors, prolonged transportation, malnutrition or a combination of these factors. – Claudia and Kyle
What is significant about the honey bees we find in Michigan?
There are about 450 different types of bees in Michigan, most of them native to this the region. The honey bee is just one type of bee and it was actually imported from Western Europe. Bees are important pollinators of plants worldwide. Honey bees are especially important in agricultural settings because they can be kept in managed hives and have such large colonies. Michigan hosts about 90,000 hives, ranking the state eighth in the U.S. for its number of hives. Honey bees are especially important for fruit crops such as cherries, apples and blueberries, and vegetable or seed production for crops such as peppers, carrots and onions. In 2015, 50% of Michigan’s $2 billion crop industry was attributed to honey bees. – Lydia and Rachel
What can we in Michigan do to ensure we’re supporting the sustainability of bees and honey?
Make your yard or garden a bee-friendly environment. Plant bee-friendly flowering plants such as bee balm, milkweed, asters and sunflowers; and herbs such as mint, oregano, garlic, chives, parsley and lavender. It’s also important to limit pesticides in your garden or yard, especially during blooming periods. – Mikayla and Bella
What is ‘raw’ honey? Do we need to be concerned about the purity or cleanliness of honey we buy?
Raw honey is unprocessed and unpasteurized honey. It might include pollen, wax and a resinous substance called propolis that bees use to seal or repair the hive. While it may contain more vitamins and nutrients than unpasteurized honey, it also might trigger or aggravate allergies in people sensitive to pollen. Some claim raw honey is more nutritious, but consuming it may increase the risk of illness that can cause dizziness, nausea, vomiting and a drop in blood pressure. – Mariah and Zaydee
Natasha Bagdasarian ’99 read a book while she was studying abroad as a Kalamazoo College student in Perth, Australia, that changed the trajectory of her career. The Hot Zone, a book about investigating Ebola outbreaks, captivated her and guided her all the way through medical school with a goal of one day working in outbreaks.
In December 2019, Bagdasarian was working as an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at National University Hospital in Singapore when COVID-19 began spreading in Wuhan, China. The pandemic quickly reached Singapore, partly because of the number of direct flights that arrived daily from Wuhan.
If there was good news at that time, it was that Singapore had learned much of what it needed to do for an epidemic like COVID-19 during the Severe Acute Respiratory Syndrome (SARS) outbreak in the early 2000s. Armed with that knowledge, Bagdasarian and her team successfully prevented all health care workers and non-COVID-19 patients at the hospital from contracting the virus despite managing more than 1,500 beds.
Bagdasarian later returned to Michigan with her husband, Vahan Bagdasarian ’99, and their child last summer. She now works for the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as a senior public health physician and consults for the World Health Organization. She also wrote an op-ed for the Huffington Post published August 14 that discussed her family’s own experiences with COVID-19. We caught up with Bagdasarian to discuss COVID-19’s delta variant, K’s plan for a full return to in-person instruction this fall, and why it’s necessary to mask up when students on campus must be vaccinated.
What is the COVID-19 delta variant?
“We know that anytime a virus spreads through a community, the more it’s transmitted, the more opportunities that virus has to mutate. The delta variant is one of those mutations. It’s been classified as a variant of concern, meaning it has some properties that make it more threatening to us. Specifically, we’ve found that the delta variant is more transmissible than the original strain that we saw back in the beginning of the pandemic. It’s also more transmissible than the alpha strain, which we had been so worried about a few months ago when it caused a huge wave of infections here in Michigan and around the country.”
What are the delta variant and COVID-19 trends that should concern us most in Michigan?
“We’re seeing an uptick in cases not just in Michigan, but really around the country. The other trend we look at is our percent positivity rate. Percent positivity measures how many tests are coming back positive out of all tests conducted in a certain area. Whenever we’re heading toward a surge of cases, we start seeing that number bump up. Of the people who are being tested, more of them are testing positive for COVID.”
Why is it important to continue masking indoors if so many students, faculty and staff have been vaccinated?
“We have a variety of ways to prevent transmission of COVID, and vaccines, I would say, are the single best tool that we have available. We know vaccines are highly efficacious, even in the face of new variants, especially when it comes to severe infections, hospitalizations and deaths. We know that the vaccines are going to save lives and have already saved lives. But what we’re seeing with delta is there can be breakthrough infections, meaning an infection after someone is fully vaccinated. A person with a breakthrough case can still potentially transmit that infection on, so relying on just one of our mitigation strategies is not a good idea.
“When we’re heading toward a potential surge of cases, it really makes sense to use as many strategies as we can. Since the beginning of the pandemic, we’ve talked about a layering of precautions. We call it the Swiss cheese model of risk mitigation. Each single mitigation measure, each single strategy has holes. No strategy is going to be 100 percent effective at stopping transmission of the virus. But if you stack up enough slices of Swiss cheese, even though there are holes, you can plug those gaps, and it’s less likely to allow a transmission to occur. If we do things like vaccinate everyone who can be vaccinated, wear masks when we’re indoors, make sure our ventilation is good, and avoid very large gatherings, that’s our best bet at preventing outbreaks.”
Should students, faculty and staff on vaccinated college campuses feel safe attending in-person classes and events this fall?
“Generally, the classroom has been a relatively safe place for people to gather. That’s for a number of reasons. In a classroom setting, people are generally following the rules. They’re generally spaced apart. They’re generally wearing their masks. We know that schools and colleges around the country have made sure their air-handling systems are up to snuff. The places that tend to be riskier are those where people are gathering for social purposes where they are removing their masks, bringing lots of people close together, and especially when those people are unvaccinated. There’s no ‘this is low risk, this is high risk.’ It’s all a spectrum. But the more strategies we can stack on top of vaccines, the safer an environment becomes.”
If the vaccine is the best tool we have available, how do we convince everyone that it’s safe?
“We know that these vaccines are incredibly safe and effective because they’ve been studied extensively. We have an adverse-symptom reporting system where adverse events are monitored very closely, and this is incredible technology. In fact, when I talk about the pandemic and whether anything good has come from it, these vaccines are the silver lining. We now are able to make vaccines using mRNA technology, which makes vaccines very quickly and effectively.”
How can we encourage those concerned about their individual liberties to get vaccinated?
“I think that’s a difficult question. Many people have strong feelings about this. My area of expertise is not really in individual liberties, but I can tell you that if I were still a student at Kalamazoo College right now, it would make me feel safer if I knew that vaccines were being required of everyone. That would make me personally feel safer, and I can tell you these vaccines are incredibly safe and effective.”
Is there any other message you’d like to share with our students, faculty and staff?
“I hope everyone has a productive and safe return to college campuses. This requires a collective approach to keeping people safe. It requires communities coming together with vaccinations and wearing masks. Doing these things individually are less effective than doing them as a community.”