Students Stand up for the ‘Little Guys’ by Researching Land Snails

Student examines snails through a microscope
Emily Haigh ’24 examines land snails under a microscope at Dow Science Center.
Student goes through leaf litter samples to look for land snails
Georgios Gkolois ’24 said some people might think land snails are insignificant, which only inspires him to learn more about them.
Snails under a microscope
Haigh and Gkolois sifted through leaf litter samples to find snails like these.

The next time you visit Kalamazoo College’s Lillian Anderson Arboretum or the Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve in Allegan, Michigan, think about what you might be stepping in—but not for the reasons you might think.

There are land snails in the area, as small as 2 mm in diameter, which are endangered thanks to deforestation and pollution. Fortunately, Georgios Gkolois ’24 and Emily Haigh ’24 teamed up this summer to collect and examine some of them as a part of their Senior Integrated Projects (SIPs) while researching what can be done to help the species in decline.

To the naked eye, the snails can appear to be the tiniest specs of dirt. Yet the snails are important to the ecosystem, aiding decomposition processes by eating fallen logs and leaves. They also glean calcium from their food, concentrate it in their shells, and pass it up the food chain as they are consumed by predators. Haigh warns that if the snails decline further, the impact eventually would affect humans, because as the environment suffers, so do we.

“I’m planning to go to med school one day, but I have always been passionate about the environment,” Haigh said. “I’ve always wanted to be outside, and I thought this would be a cool way to explore environmental biology before I put my life into medicine. I’ve learned a lot about the importance of even the smallest, tiniest, most microscopic creatures because the little guys can still have a big impact on everything.”

Leaf litter samples
Haigh and Gkolois examined leaf litter samples like this one to find land snails.
Magnified land snail in moss
Haigh and Gkolois said land snails could often be found in mossy areas.
Student collecting samples in forest area
Haigh collected leaf litter samples at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum and the Armintrout-Milbocker Nature Preserve to find land snails.

Gkolois was relegated to a lab role this summer after breaking his ankle a matter of days before their fieldwork was scheduled to start. However, the misfortune provided a clear method for the partners to share their workload with Haigh in the field and Gkolois in the lab. First, Haigh collected samples through leaf litter in the natural areas, especially near fallen trees, under living trees and near moss. Later, in the lab, the samples’ moisture was removed through heat before Gkolois sorted the snails by examining them through microscopes.

“It seems amazing that a piece of log could be such a diverse community where we could find microhabitats,” Gkolois said. “While we were sorting, we saw snails that were as small as a grain of sand. A lot of people would think they’re insignificant and ask why we care about them. That just got me thinking that I wanted to know more about them.”

Professor of Biology Binney Girdley, serving as their SIP adviser, and zoologist Ashley Cole-Wick, a Michigan Natural Features Inventory conservation associate, worked with the students to shape the project as Gkolois and Haigh developed their SIPs.

“I’m looking into relationships between the volume of decomposing wood and the state of decomposition to the amount of land snail abundance and diversity,” Gkolois said. “Basically, I’m looking at categories of freshly fallen wood and live trees, intermediately decomposed logs and completely decomposed mulch. I want to find out what the snails like most.”

Leaf litter samples in paper bags
Haigh and Gkolois cooked leaf litter samples before examining them under microscopes to look for land snails.
Hand holding vial containing a land snail
Haigh and Gkolois collected land snails including some that were no bigger than a grain of sand.
Haigh and Gkolois commonly found land snails in leaf litter samples taken from mossy areas.

Haigh’s project differs slightly. During her field work, she wasn’t looking for levels of decomposition as much as she was for similar plots of land on a slope within about 25 meters of the Kalamazoo River to compare natural communities and find the areas where snails are most likely to be.

“I’ve learned a lot about conservation as a whole, especially animal conservation,” Haigh said. “I’ve learned about the importance of even the tiniest, most-microscopic creatures because these tiny guys can still have a big impact on everything. It taught me a lot about the environment and the impact we have on it.”

Because of their research, Gkolois and Haigh have calls to action for people who want to learn more.

“A lot of times people will remove pieces of logs from land without realizing they’re habitats for a lot of organisms, and not just land snails, but other micro-invertebrates.” Gkolois said. “My advice, as a result, would be to maintain awareness of such situations when managing land.”

“On the topic of conservation, we’ve been writing literature reviews for our SIPs,” Haigh said. “In that, I’ve found a lot of information on the habitats and variables that impact the snails. I think understanding what goes into the land snail communities and their ability to survive is an important factor in better conserving them. We want to make sure these little guys are here to stay.”

Biology Department Incorporates New Microscope into Research, Teaching

A microscope acquired in spring 2023 using grant funds is opening new opportunities for research and teaching in the Kalamazoo College biology department. 

The fluorescence dissecting microscope boasts several advantages over other microscopes in the department, said Michael Wollenberg, associate professor of biology and department chair, and Amanda Wollenberg, associate professor of biology. Its features include optics that allow clear views of individual cells, fluorescence to help differentiate between types of cells, space to manipulate a sample while viewing it, and a dedicated camera and software program. 

“We want to be able to look at single bacterial cells, and they’re one-millionth of a meter large, so they’re not visible to the naked eye,” Michael said. “What’s really important is that we have a microscope that has extremely good optics, and those optics resolve the sample very well—they magnify it to the point where we can see individual bacterial cells. Bacterial cells are clear and transparent, and having a set of fluorescent molecules inside the cell allows us to tag them with a glowing marker so we can say, ‘OK, that transparent cell that’s really tiny—that’s actually the bacterial cell we’re interested in, as opposed to schmutz or a eukaryotic cell or some other bacterial cell, and it’s located in X, Y or Z place, which gives us a three-dimensional resolution of the relationship that we’re looking at.’” 

While many microscopes use white light to illuminate samples, a fluorescence microscope can do more. 

“Bacteria might be too small to actually see just using white light,” Amanda said. “If you genetically manipulate those bacteria so that they glow fluorescent—and that’s a very common technique; people do it all the time, Michael can do it in his lab—if you have a microscope that can detect fluorescence, you can track those bacteria. You can see where they are because they’re glowing green.” 

The microscope also has a camera and software program that allows the user to take and analyze photos through the microscope as well as project to a computer screen—two key advantages in research and in teaching that are new to the biology department in terms of dissecting microscopes. 

“The camera and software are really important when it comes to trying to share the results of what we see with other scientists by publishing,” Amanda said. “You can’t just say, ‘Oh, trust us, we saw it.’ You must have a picture, and it’s got to be a high-quality picture. Ideally, you also try to quantify some of the information in that picture. That means you don’t just show a picture. You say, ‘We took 100 pictures, and we did this analysis of the intensity of the color, using the software program, and in 70 percent of the pictures, the intensity was higher than a certain threshold.’” 

The computer projection makes the microscope an excellent teaching tool. 

“A microscope has two eyepieces,” Michael said. “You look in the eyepieces, and you’re the only person who can see what you’re seeing. This camera is a great way to project what the microscope sees to a larger group of people, be it a small research laboratory, like our summer research with undergraduates, or a small class.” 

Biology major Allison Sokacz ’24 has worked in Michael Wollenberg’s lab for three summers. She recently started using the microscope in the summer research that will form the basis for her Senior Integrated Project. 

“The intensity that lets you see the entire fluorescence from this microscope, versus some of the other scopes we have, is really helpful,” Sokacz said. “It’s a lot easier to see what you have.” 

The camera is essential to her project, as she is working with two different forms of a bacteria and will be able to compare their locations using saved images. She also appreciates the benefits of the screen projection. 

“Microscopy is hard, because only one person can see,” Sokacz said. “I just took microbiology with Dr. [Michael] Wollenberg this spring, and I really struggled with microscopy, because it’s different for everyone. My lab partner might say, put the zoom to this, but then I might not be able to see it. With this microscope, I can say what I see, and they can also see it, instead of, ‘Well, I saw this but then it moved off the screen,’ or, ‘I can’t get it in focus.’ Being able to show a whole room what you’re seeing is definitely helpful.” 

In addition, the microscope has a wheel that allows for different filters that can detect different colors of fluorescence, which expands the future possibilities for use. 

“You could label one type of bacteria with green and one with red, and now you can look at the dynamics,” Amanda said. “Are the green ones in one place, are the red ones in another place? Another thing researchers will do sometimes is to stain the host with one color and the bacteria with a different color, and that can help resolve some of the questions of what you are seeing.”

Student looks through microscope that projects image on to a computer screen
Garrick Hohm ’25 looks into the fluorescence dissecting microscope purchased for the biology department in spring 2023 using National Science Foundation grant funds.
Student points to an image projected onto a computer screen
Biology major Allison Sokacz ’24 demonstrates how the biology department’s new, grant-purchased microscope can be connected to a computer monitor for research and teaching. 
New Biology Microscope 5
Garrick Hohm ’25 looks into the fluorescence dissecting microscope
Student looking into a microscope
Allison Sokacz ’24 checks for the presence and location of bacteria in nematodes using a grant-purchased microscope that is opening up new research and teaching opportunities in the biology department.

The microscope was purchased using funds from a $400,000 National Science Foundation grant, awarded to the Wollenbergs in June 2018 to study mechanisms of specificity and tolerance in a nematode-bacterial symbiosis. About 9 percent of that budget was for the microscope, which cost about $35,000. The rest of the total includes about 12.5 percent for other materials and small equipment, 5 percent for travel, 26 percent for indirect costs like building infrastructure, and slightly less than half for student pay, summer salary and benefits. 

“Science uses very condensed writing, where each word means so much,” Amanda said. “In the title of our research, ‘mechanisms’ tell you that we’re looking at the molecular side of things: not just that this happens, but how does it happen? ‘Specificity’ is getting at this idea that when two organisms are trying to have a relationship with each other, it’s not like just any bacteria can come in and live with any animal. ‘Tolerance’ is, even once they’ve found each other and formed that partnership, they have to keep getting along with each other. From the animal perspective, it can’t start killing off that bacteria like it does to other, more pathogenic bacteria. The specific relationship we’re looking at is a nematode-bacterial symbiosis. This is telling us that the animal is the nematode–that’s a roundworm that lives in the soil–and the partner it has is bacteria. Symbiosis is saying they’re in partnership, they both benefit each other. We’re trying to understand how they find each other and get along with each other within that system.” 

The duo is well-suited to the research, with Michael bringing a microbiology perspective while Amanda has an immunology focus.  

“The big picture is that we live in a microbial world where there’s lots and lots of microorganisms that are in and on our bodies and all animal bodies,” Michael said. “Basically, they facilitate everything that animals do; we can’t survive without them. Understanding how animals tolerate beneficial microorganisms is a big open scientific question. How do we train our immune systems, or how are our immune systems calibrated, so that the friendly bacteria get into association with organisms and maintain those associations that are beneficial?” 

That’s not very well understood, Michael notes, “especially not in really complicated organisms like humans, where there are myriad different species of microorganisms that are associated with us. If you think about our gut, it’s like its own ecosystem. We do research with simple models to try to understand detailed answers to bigger biology questions, in the hopes that other scientists can apply that research to things that are more relevant for human health or other animals that have more complicated associations in their health.” 

The new microscope is an invaluable tool in the Wollenbergs’ research, and they also look forward to the whole biology department finding ways to use it in the classroom. 

“That was part of the reason we wanted to get this piece of equipment as well, is to integrate it with teaching and use it as a teaching tool,” Michael said. “As we’re coming online with the things we’ve wanted to do with the grant, it’s giving us ideas of how we can translate this into the classroom.” 

Student’s Neuroscience Research Fights ALS

When progress is made in the fight against neurological afflictions such as ALS, Alzheimer’s disease and Parkinson’s disease, students such as Vivian Schmidt ’25 often are on the frontlines of research.

Schmidt, a biology and psychology double major with a concentration in neuroscience at Kalamazoo College, is having a cutting-edge experience this summer at the University of Michigan. She is working for 10 weeks in the institution’s Summer Intensive Research Experience in Neuroscience (SIREN) program, a highly desirable opportunity that accepts only about 20 applicants each year out of hundreds. As a bonus, she’s directly working with Michigan faculty such as K alumna Elizabeth Tank ’03, an assistant research scientist in neurology.

The initiative is funded by the National Science Foundation’s Research Experiences for Undergraduates (REU) program, which also provides Schmidt with a stipend and on-campus housing.

“It’s surreal to think that everything I did in high school and my first two years at K led to this opportunity,” Schmidt said. “I’ve met a lot of incredibly witty, smart and established professionals in their field, who have done phenomenal things. It definitely has solidified my desire to come here for graduate school, as well. It’s been amazing to get to know the faculty members and the culture of the program here.”

SIREN research this summer involves a range of topics within neuroscience. Schmidt’s specific project is investigating what goes wrong with a protein that has ties to ALS and dementia to understand the underlying causes of the conditions. The hope is that the science will one day reveal therapeutic options that assist treatment.

“Even the failures are exciting now because I’ve realized they tell me this one thing didn’t work,” Schmidt said. “I ask, ‘Why didn’t this work?’ as opposed to getting down on myself. The daily successes have involved my mental attitude and keeping up my enthusiasm, especially in such a long program, and ultimately, the overall goal is presenting my research.”

In a way, such an opportunity for Schmidt could have been predicted. She’s been interested in studying how people think since high school, and her biology and chemistry classes helped her develop a passion for biological-based research rather than clinical approaches to psychology.

“I wanted to be the one getting my hands dirty in the lab,” she said. “I wanted to be the one who tries to figure out why something failed and then try it again. I’ve known since my first year in high school that I wanted a Ph.D. in neuroscience, and it’s something I’ve been gunning for since.”

Schmidt has received a lot of encouragement from K faculty and staff such as Professor of Biology Blaine Moore, Director of Biology Labs Anne Engh and Assistant Professor of Chemistry Daniela Arias-Rotondo. Moore, however, was the one Schmidt conversed with even before she arrived at K. He, Arias-Rotondo, and Engh have written countless letters of recommendation on her behalf.

Vivian Schmidt presenting her neuroscience research poster to five people at the University of Michigan
Vivian Schmidt ’25, a biology and psychology double major with a concentration in neuroscience, presents her summer research at the University of Michigan.
Vivian Schmidt 2_showcase

“I did my apprenticeship with Dr. Moore in the spring after he was phenomenally supportive throughout my first year, so I made him my official academic advisor,” she said. “He’s been great at guiding me with which classes to take and pushing me to do what he knows I’m capable of. I might not 100% believe in myself all the time, but I know he believes in me. Kalamazoo College is better for him being there.”

Study abroad opportunities and a wide range of subjects within her reach were big reasons why she chose K.

“The fact that I could do a double major and still have room to take classes that had absolutely nothing to do with neuroscience was a huge draw,” she said. “My first year I took jazz explorations and Hindu traditions and they were some of my favorites. I don’t think I would have been able to do that at another school.”

Thanks to a well-rounded K-Plan, Schmidt also plays on the women’s lacrosse team, participates in an astrophotography- and astronomy-focused student organization she co-founded called Konstellation, and plans programming for first-generation students like herself through the Intercultural Center. But research will always be her focus at K, throughout graduate school, and hopefully, in her professional life.

“I’ve been tossing around a few ideas, because with a Ph.D., I could go an industrial route or go into teaching, or I could work somewhere like the Van Andel Institute, where I could just be a research scientist,” she said. “I’ve always had a bit of an interest in teaching, mentorship and explaining things to people, too. At this moment, I’m thinking I would love to be a professor at an institution where I can teach and do research. That would be ideal, but no matter what, as long as research is involved, I’m going to be happy.”

Grazing Research Puts Mowing on the Lamb

Three women set up electric fencing for grazing sheep
Aerin Braunohler ’24 (from left), Ava Loncharte ’25 and Mellon Fellow for Experiential Learning Amy Newday set up fencing for grazing sheep arriving at Lillian Anderson Arboretum.
Grazing sheep peek out of a trailer
Sheep from Tending Tilth LLC, a local contract sheep-grazing business, arrive at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum in Oshtemo Township.
Sheep grazing at Lillian Anderson Arboretum
Sheep from Tending Tilth LLC begin grazing at Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

If you’re not sure about the benefits of replacing mowing with grazing in some agricultural applications, don’t knock it until ewes try it.

Two Kalamazoo College students, the Department of Biology and the Tending Tilth LLC farm brought sheep into the Lillian Anderson Arboretum this month in the first part of a study to see whether grazing, controlled burning or a combination of the two could help pare back the need for mowing, thereby reducing the use of fossil fuels and trapping carbon.

Such a practice would be an example of regenerative agriculture, a rehabilitative approach to food and farming systems that is gaining steam through research at K. It focuses on resisting climate change while strengthening the health and vitality of farm soil and the water in it.

One of the students, Aerin Braunohler ’24, is working on the project as part of her Senior Integrated Project (SIP); the other, Ava Loncharte ’25, is the Seminary Hill Sustainability intern with Tending Tilth through the Environmental Stewardship Center. They are working alongside Tending Tilth owner Lauren Burns and Professor of Biology Binney Girdler.

Burns connected with Professor Emeritus Paul Sotherland last year when she was working on another project through Oshtemo Township. In talking with Sotherland about her goals for her contract sheep-grazing business, which included teaching young people about her industry and developing more science on grazing, he recommended involving K students including those working on their SIPs. The idea thrilled Burns who enjoyed having interns when she worked as a zookeeper at Binder Park Zoo in Battle Creek and Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago.

“I enjoy sharing my knowledge of conservation and regenerative agriculture with young people,” she said. “I also enjoy hearing about what they’re learning. It’s been exciting to see Aerin learning some new techniques for soil sampling and GPS plotting, and Ava learn more about farming in general and what we can do to take care of the land. They also ask me questions that help me think more about my business long term and the effects we’re having on the environment.”

On June 8, Braunohler, Loncharte, Burns and Girdler, along with a team of Center for Environmental Stewardship employees and volunteers, set up electrical fencing to lead Burns’ sheep from a trailer unloaded at the Batts Pavilion, through the Not So Magnificent Pines and to the Powerline Trail.

Sheep are ushered in to Lillian Anderson Arboretum for grazing
Sheep are ushered in to the Powerline Trail area of the Lillian Anderson Arboretum for grazing.
Student sets up fencing at Lillian Anderson Arboretum
Ava Loncharte ’25, an intern at Tending Tilth LLC, sets up fencing to lead grazing sheep to the Powerline Trail at Lillian Anderson Arboretum.
Sheep begin arriving at Lillian Anderson Arboretum
Sheep from Tending Tilth LLC are empowering student research that is examining whether grazing, controlled burning or a combination of the two could help pare back the need for mowing at places such as Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

After about a week of grazing under the power lines, the sheep were removed so Braunohler and Loncharte could collect soil samples and more to measure the benefits of having the animals there. Braunohler now is splitting her time this summer between the arboretum, a Dow Science Center lab, the Gilchrist Rehabilitation Center near Three Rivers, and the Tending Tilth farm to continue the study.

“There’s a lot of research that shows how the action of sheep grazing, through the pressure of their hooves and addition of waste to a landscape, can have regenerative effects on the soil in comparison to mowing as a means of land management,” Braunohler said. “Controlled burns, rooted in indigenous knowledge, are also known to regenerate soil, but there’s not a lot of data that shows the impact of these three practices—mowing, grazing and burning—side by side. I’m excited to see what we find.”  

A childhood interest in farms is leading Loncharte, a biology major also considering an environmental studies concentration, toward her own career path in regenerative agriculture. That path flows from her participation in the College’s Just Food Collective—a student-led, sustainable-food systems program available through the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement. She also tends to crops at the hoop house, a greenhouse on campus that allows students to grow produce year-round.

Tending Tilth LLC owner Lauren Burns leads her sheep to the Powerline Trail at Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

Loncharte said that her internship through Tending Tilth so far has taught her that grazing doesn’t provide an exact alternative to mowing as the practices have different outcomes. Instead, mowing provides a short, even cut, while sheep are selective with what they eat, occasionally leaving the grass and plants up to a foot tall. However, grazing provides ecological benefits and soil health as the sheep fertilize, trample and aerate the soil.

“Everything I know about sheep, I’ve learned in this internship,” Loncharte said. “I’ve learned a lot about grazing as a method of regenerative agriculture and how it builds soil health. I’ve also learned about animal husbandry. We just had to treat a sick sheep that has a joint infection, so I learned about giving antibiotics and electrolytes to a sheep that’s limping. And I’ve learned about the business side of being client facing, seeing properties and learning how to make a name for yourself in the community.”

Research will likely need to be repeated and continued over the course of several years to ultimately prove that grazing has the conservation benefits Burns, Braunohler and Loncharte suspect it does. But their patience and continued efforts would pay large dividends in their fields of work.

“I’m really interested to show sheep grazing can help sequester carbon and retain water in soil,” Burns said. “I think evidence of that, climate change-wise, is important. Most businesses want to be able to say that they’re carbon neutral. I think if we prove that we can help in those goals, it would be great for our business and really great for our planet. If we can prove that the plots that are grazed by sheep versus mowing are helping to store more carbon and nitrogen in the soil without having to apply outside fertilizers, that would be a huge step in the regenerative agriculture world.”

Arboretum team poses for a photo
Braunohler (third from left), Loncharte (fourth from left), Burns (fifth from left) and Professor of Biology Binney Girdler (third from right), along with a team of Center for Environmental Stewardship employees and volunteers, set up electrical fencing to lead Burns’ sheep from a trailer unloaded at the Batts Pavilion, through the Not So Magnificent Pines and to the Powerline Trail.
Three students and three sheep at Lillian Anderson Arboretum
Ava Loncharte ’25 (from left), Aerin Braunohler ’24 and Katie Rock ’23 help usher sheep to the Powerline Trail at Lillian Anderson Arboretum.
Sheep at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum
After about a week of grazing under the power lines at Lillian Anderson Arboretum, the Tending Tilth LLC sheep were removed so Braunohler and Loncharte could collect soil samples and more to measure the benefits of having the animals there.

K Receives $2M Grant for Dow Science Center, Electrical Infrastructure

The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation is continuing a legacy of philanthropy toward higher education and Kalamazoo College with a $2 million grant that will support K’s science facilities. 

The College’s Dow Science Center, completed in 1992, is named in recognition of another generous grant from the Dow Foundation. At the time of its completion, the 33,290-square-foot science center introduced K students to the latest technology and equipment in biology and chemistry instructional programs and offered a practical and attractive environment for teaching, learning and research. The mission of the facility continues today, and this new grant will help the College maintain the center’s excellence as it replaces the roof, retrofits the lab airflow management systems throughout the building, upgrades the fire system and installs new carpeting.

Additionally, the grant will help fund an ongoing project to modernize the College’s electrical grid. This initiative is set to be completed by August 2025, with the College actively engaging in fundraising efforts to bring it to fruition. The Dow Foundation’s support will help move this project forward, allowing the College to ensure a reliable and sustainable energy infrastructure across the entire campus.

Student works in Dow Science Center
A $2 million grant from the Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation will benefit students and help Kalamazoo College maintain the Dow Science Center by replacing the roof, retrofitting the lab airflow management systems throughout the building, upgrading the fire system and installing new carpeting.

For nearly four decades, the Dow Foundation’s commitment to STEM programing at K has benefitted generations of students. Its latest grant adds to its legacy, building upon previous support that funded two endowed professorships and enabled the replacement of a nuclear magnetic resonance (NMR) spectrometer, allowing students to analyze and identify chemical compounds and structures with state-of-the-art equipment.

“We’re grateful for the Dow Foundation’s generous support, which will enable students, faculty and staff to continue pursuing science and research that benefits the world,” Kalamazoo College President Jorge G. Gonzalez said. “The College has a long history of success in the sciences and this grant shows a continued and shared optimism in the exceptional work of our students, and what they will accomplish long after they leave K.”   

The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation was established in 1936 for religious, charitable, scientific, literary or educational purposes for the public benefaction of the inhabitants of the City of Midland and the people of the State of Michigan.  

“The State of Michigan has always benefited from strength in higher education,” said Ruth Alden Doan, president and trustee of The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation. “The Herbert H. and Grace A. Dow Foundation is proud to have played a role in that strength and continues to value the high performance of Kalamazoo College as a liberal arts college with excellence in chemistry and other sciences.”

Family Science Night Fun Brings Community to K

Students participate in Family Science Night
Kalamazoo College students demonstrate how oranges can be used to pop balloons during Family Science Night.
Students participate in Family Science Night
K students teach community members about acid/base chemistry by writing hidden messages.
Family Science Night 14 (2)
K students helped K-12 students explore density by using oil, water and Alka-Seltzer to make lava lamps.

About 160 community members, consisting of kindergartners through 12th graders and their families, came to campus to engage with fun, hands-on experiments at Family Science Night on May 18, hosted by students from the Department of Chemistry and Biochemistry and the Department of Biology at Kalamazoo College.

The Family Science Night “Science Surrounds Us,” conducted at Dow Science Center and supported by funding from the Mary Jane Underwood Stryker Center for Civic Engagement, featured 15 interactive science booths with 39 undergraduate student volunteers and a four-student planning committee, consisting of Crystal Mendoza ’23, Elizabeth Wang ’23, Maxwell Rhames ’25 and Onora Lancaster ’23. The event gave K students the opportunity to practice their science communication skills while nurturing children’s interest in the sciences.

K students showed Family Science Night attendees how to make DNA bracelets using the DNA sequences from various animals.
Students participate in Family Science Night
K students helped Family Science Night attendees explore the freezing-point of water by making ice cream.
K students showed taught community members about the life cycle of plants by planting herb seeds for kids to take home.

Assistant Professor of Chemistry Josie Mitchell joined the faculty at K last fall and had been thinking since about ways she could connect her students with the community. Science outreach events with K-12 students had been the way she loved doing similar community engagement as a graduate student at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.

“One of the skills I hope my students develop is to be able to communicate the scientific concepts they learn about in class in an exciting and accessible way to the public,” Mitchell said. “As students planned their science booths, we talked about the scientific topic each group hoped to convey and then designed hands-on experiments that K-12 students would do. Ultimately, we all learn better and have more fun when we’re actually doing something versus being told about it.”

Stickers helped K-12 students keep track of which experiments they saw
Kids used stickers in a Family Science Night passport to keep track of which experiment stations they visited.
K students assist community members
·        K students showed Family Science Night attendees how to extract the iron content from cereal using magnets
Students tend to a booth showing homemade volcanoes
K students helped community members investigate acid/base chemistry with baking soda and vinegar to make mini-volcanoes.

The K students developed ideas using household ingredients that ranged from experiments such as creating miniature volcanoes with baking soda and vinegar, exploring the freezing point of water by making ice cream and learning about the life cycle of plants by planting herbs, to creative activities such as removing the iron from cereal with magnets, extracting DNA from strawberries and investigating rubber polymers by using oranges to pop balloons.

“The planning committee and I worked together with groups to hone their scientific concept and think creatively about how students could get their hands wet and learn through experimentation,” Mitchell said. “For example, one group was learning about acids and bases. There is a chemical in red cabbage called anthocyanin that serves as a pH indicator and it will change color depending on how acidic or basic the solution is. K students prepared a red cabbage pH indicator solution and then had K-12 students add it into acidic and basic solutions and observe a color change. Many of the parents would also engage with the science booths, and I believe events like this can bring out the inner child-like curiosity in all of us.”

Students participate in Family Science Night
K students helped Family Science Night attendees investigate the polarity of molecules using milk, food coloring and detergent.
Family Science Night
Family Science Night attendees explored protein folding using a computer program and origami.
Family Science Night 9
K students taught K-12 students and parents about genetics through taste inheritance by using a PTC test.

The K community made the night possible with involvement from the planning stages all the way through cleanup after the event.

“We had a lot of help, especially with funding from the Center for Civic Engagement and donated prize items from K Admissions and the K Bookstore,” Mitchell said. “I communicated with (CCE Director) Alison Geist throughout the planning stages, and (Associate Director for Community Partnerships) Teresa Denton tapped into the CCE’s amazing network of local schools and programs to invite community members to the event.”

Student organizations such as Sisters in Science and the College’s chapter of the American Chemical Society also assisted.

“I think our student involvement was the most rewarding part,” Mitchell said. “I’ve already known how amazing our students are, but they went above and beyond to make this event possible. I wanted to start smaller and more focused this year to see how it went, and next year I would love to invite other K students from science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) disciplines to host a booth.”

Family Science Night 4
K students showed Family Science Night attendees how to test the pH of household items using cabbage water.
K students helped K-12 students explore density by using oil, water and Alka-Seltzer to make lava lamps.
Family Science Night 13
K students taught community members how to extract DNA from strawberries during Family Science Night.

Family Science Night Experiments

  • Magnetic Munchies: extracting iron content in cereal using magnets
  • Fold It: exploring protein folding using a computer program and origami
  • Dancing Drawings: learning about density by watching dry erase drawings float
  • Butterfly Wings: creating colorful butterflies using coffee filter paper chromatography
  • Mini Volcanoes: investigating acid/base chemistry with baking soda and vinegar
  • Strawberry DNA: extracting DNA from strawberries
  • Ice Cream: exploring the freezing-point of water by making ice cream
  • The Lifecycle of Plants: planting herb seeds and taking them home to watch them grow
  • Magic Milk: investigating polarity of molecules using milk, food coloring and detergent
  • Lava Lamps: exploring density using oil, water and Alka-Seltzer to make lava lamps
  • Oranges and Balloons: investigating rubber polymers using oranges to pop balloons
  • Bitter or Bland: exploring the genetics of taste inheritance using a PTC test
  • DNA Bracelets: making DNA bracelets using the DNA sequence from various animals
  • Acid or Base: testing the pH of various household items using cabbage water as a pH indicator
  • Spies in Disguise, Invisible Ink: learning about acid/base chemistry by writing hidden messages

Volunteer Feedback

  • “I had so much fun running this booth and it was fun to be able to teach kids about chemistry. I feel like everything was running smoothly with some rush of people, but it was manageable.”
  • “This was a wonderful time! I heard phenomenal things from parents as they came out!”
  • “I had so much fun and would love to do it again! I loved seeing all of their reactions to our volcanoes!”

Parent Feedback

“The Family Science Night was absolutely wonderful. My children had the best time! My son is very interested in science, but my daughter has approached it more cautiously, although last night really made her more interested in it so I am grateful to you all!”

K’s Banner Year Elates Faculty, NSF Fellows

Kalamazoo College STEM-related academic departments are celebrating a banner year as the overall number of current students and alumni receiving National Science Foundation (NSF) graduate research fellowships reaches four, the most since 2016.

The Graduate Research Fellowship Program (GRFP) recognizes and supports outstanding students who pursue research-based master’s and doctoral degrees at accredited U.S. institutions. A five-year fellowship covers three years of financial support, including an annual stipend and a cost-of-education allowance to attend an institution along with access to professional-development opportunities.

About 2,000 applicants are offered a fellowship per NSF competition in fields such as chemistry, biology, psychology, physics and math. This is the first year since 2013 that two current K students, Claire Kvande ’23 and Mallory Dolorfino ’23, have earned awards. Two alumni also have earned fellowships, Cavan Bonner ’21 and Angel Banuelos ’21.

“The NSF Graduate Research Fellowship is a highly competitive program that is only awarded to about 16% of the applicants, who represented more than 15,000 undergraduates and graduate students across all STEM fields,” Roger F. and Harriet G. Varney Assistant Professor of Chemistry Blakely Tresca said. “Approximately 2,500 awards were offered this year across all STEM fields and the vast majority of them go to students at large research universities and Ivy League schools. It is rare to see more than one or two awards at an undergraduate-focused college, particularly at a small liberal arts school like K. It is exceptional for schools in the GLCA (Great Lakes Colleges Association) to have one award in a year, and four awards is a truly outstanding accomplishment for these students.”

Claire Kvande ’23

Kvande has been a double major in physics and chemistry with minors in math and French at K. She credits faculty members such as Dow Distinguished Professor of Natural Science Jan Tobochnik and Associate Professor of Physics David Wilson, along with a wide range of courses, for preparing her to receive an NSF fellowship.

“I like the nitty gritty of sitting down and figuring out how to approach a problem within physics even though it’s often hard,” she said. “I really like work that is grounded in real-world problems and it’s part of why I’m interested in the subfield of condensed matter. There’s a lot that stands to be applied to technologies that I think could improve our world and help a lot of people.”

Kvande will attend the University of Washington this fall, where she plans to extend her Senior Integrated Project (SIP) work, which examined how charge-density waves relate to superconductivity within condensed matter.

“Superconductivity is a tantalizing physics concept,” she said. “If we could realize superconductivity at room temperature, it would allow us to do a lot with energy saving and revolutionize how we use electricity. There are schools of thought that say charge-density waves would be helpful in achieving that and others that say it would be hurtful. Since we really don’t know how superconductivity works, this is worth investigating so we can hopefully better understand this powerful phenomenon.”

NSF fellow Claire Kvande presenting her SIP
Claire Kvande ’23 will attend graduate school at the University of Washington as a National Science Foundation fellow.

Mallory Dolorfino ’23

Dolorfino, a computer science and math double major, also will attend the University of Washington, where they will pursue a doctorate in math.

“I didn’t really like math until I came to K,” Dolorfino said. “I took calculus in high school and I was just not going to take any more in college until one of my senior friends told me when I was a first-year student to take linear algebra. I took that and Calculus 3 online during the first COVID term and I just kept doing math, so I switched my major. It’s not like other subjects because you can work for hours and not get anything done. That’s frustrating at times, but it’s fun to understand it enough to prove things logically.”

Dolorfino credits several faculty members for their growth and success at K, leading to their NSF opportunity. They include Tresca, who helped students keep track of their NSF application timelines and materials; Associate Professor of Mathematics Michele Intermont, who provided letters of recommendation and application assistance for research opportunities and graduate school; and Assistant Professor of Mathematics Stephen Oloo, who provided invaluable feedback regarding their research proposal and many conversations about math.

Dolorfino remains in contact with a professor they worked with in a math-focused study abroad program in Budapest. The two of them conducted a monthlong research project in algebraic number theory, which is a foundation in applications such as encryption and bar codes. Their NSF application proposes group theory work, which is what she based some research on last summer at Texas State University. They hope their NSF work will help them become a college professor one day. “There are a lot of math institutions on the West Coast and specifically in the Northwest, so I will have really good connections there,” said Dolorfino, who agreed the award is an honor. “I was grateful for the people at K who helped me apply.”

NSF fellow Mallory Dolorfino
Mallory Dolorfino ’23 will attend graduate school at the University of Washington as an NSF fellow.

Cavan Bonner ’21

Bonner has spent the past two years working as a research staff member in industrial and organizational psychology at Purdue University. His NSF fellowship will take him to another Big Ten school.

“My area of research involves personality development and how personality changes over the lifespan,” he said. “It’s a pretty small sub field and there are only a few doctoral programs where you can study the topic with an expert. The University of Illinois is one of them.”

Bonner further hopes the fellowship will propel his career toward a tenure-track job at a research university. He said K helped prepare him well for that trajectory through a broad range of subjects, not only in psychology, but in adjacent fields such as sociology and statistics. Bonner also credits his experience working as a research assistant for Ann V. and Donald R. Parfet Distinguished Professor of Psychology Gary Gregg, and Associate Professor of Psychology Brittany Liu for training him in skills that he frequently uses in his research work after graduation. 

“I was drawn to personality psychology because it provides an integrative framework to study many of the research questions I have about human development, aging and change over time,” Bonner said. “My SIP and research assistant experiences at K helped me realize that I could address these questions from a personality perspective, but my professors also exposed me to so many other fields and perspectives that inform my research. I primarily identify as a personality and developmental psychologist, but ultimately I hope that this fellowship helps me contribute to the broader science of aging and development.”

Portrait of Cavan Bonner
Cavan Bonner ’21 will attend the University of Illinois as an NSF fellow.

Angel Banuelos ’21

Banuelos, a biology major and anthropology/sociology minor at K, is in his second year at the University of Wisconsin, where he said he studies genetics—specifically the construction of the vertebrate brain and face—under an amazing mentor, Professor Yevgenya Grinblat.

“Live beings are built by cells that are informed by DNA,” Banuelos said. “At the beginning of embryonic development, the cells split into groups. One of those groups is called the neural crest cells. Those cells go on to contribute to a whole bunch of things such as pigment cells in the skin, and cartilage and bones in the face. My project is trying to understand how neural crest cells contribute to stabilizing the very first blood vessels of the developing eye.”

Ultimately, when his graduate work is finished, he would like to steer his career towards education.

NSF fellow Angel Banuelos in the lab
Angel Banuelos ’21, a newly-named NSF fellow, is in his second year of graduate school at the University of Wisconsin.

“I would like to bring research opportunities to people who don’t have higher education experience,” Banuelos said. “I would imagine starting with programs for middle schoolers, then high schoolers and adult learners. I want to be part of research addressing community problems and conducted by the people who live there.”

Banuelos credits inspiration for his career goals to the many mentors he had at K. Natalia Carvalho-Pinto, former director of the intercultural center, and Amy Newday, who provided guidance in food and farming justice, served as role models for applying theory to meet material needs.

“In my NSF application, I described meeting community needs as a central component of my scholarship,” he said. “Natalia and Amy are people who literally fed me while I was at K. They saw the student and the human. They handed me books, handed me plates, even welcomed my family. During a very difficult transition to grad school, they were there for me. When I’m a professor, I want to be like them. I’m grateful for the growth opportunities I had at K through the Intercultural Center and food and farming.”

‘It doesn’t happen every year’

Faculty members as a whole across STEM departments are taking great pride in these K representatives earning fellowships as it speaks to the quality of students at the College and their studies, especially as the number of recipients stands out.

“At K, it is exciting when even a single student wins a fellowship, and it certainly doesn’t happen every year,” Professor of Physics Tom Askew said. “It’s special to have four in one year.”

Kalamazoo Gardeners Beware: Student Unearths Jumping Worms

Katie Rock smiles and holds a jumping worm
Katie Rock ’23 is cataloging the earthworms inhabiting Lillian Anderson Arboretum and has unearthed jumping worms, which have never been officially documented in Kalamazoo.
Katie Rock holds a common earthworm and a jumping worm to compare
Katie Rock ’23 compares a common earthworm (left) to a jumping worm. Jumping worms are officially being documented in Kalamazoo through Rock’s research for the first time.

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.”

Katie Rock picks up a worm that has risen to the soil's surface
Katie Rock ’23 collects worms after mustard water forces them to the soil’s surface at Lillian Anderson Arboretum.
Katie Rock pours mustard water into a sampling water
Katie Rock ’23 pours one gallon of mustard water into a sampling area, forcing worms to the soil’s surface.

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.

Katie Rock demonstrates a geographic information system map
Katie Rock ’23 shows a geographic information system (GIS) map she will use in her research to map where jumping worms are found.
Katie Rock points to a map showing where jumping worms have been found at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum
Katie Rock ’23 is designing a map that shows jumping worms at Lillian Anderson Arboretum have so far been confined to spaces near Batts Pavilion.

“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.”

Fellowship, SIP Prompt K Student to Stop and Smell the Wildflowers

Eli Edlefson identifies wildflowers such as daisy fleabane
Eli Edlefson ’23 identifies daisy fleabane at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum, where he is surveying plants and pollinators for an Environmental Stewardship fellowship and his Senior Integrated Project. Although most flowers have seven petals at most, daisy fleabane can have between 30 and 100 petals per flower.
Eli Edlefson identifies wild indigo among the wildflowers at Lillian Anderson Arboretum
Environmental Stewardship Fellow Eli Edlefson ’23 identifies wild indigo, a native plant that is flourishing in one area of the pollinator rehabilitation project at the Lillian Anderson Arboretum. The wild indigo has distinctive flowers and heart-shaped pods. Edlefson is surveying plants and pollinators along the Powerline Trail for his fellowship and his Senior Integrated Project.
Portrait of Eli Edlefson
Biology and physics dual major Eli Edlefson ’23 is surveying plants and pollinators along the Powerline Trail in the Lillian Anderson Arboretum for his summer Environmental Stewardship fellowship and his Senior Integrated Project.

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.

Wildflowers Project 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 Read on to learn about one of the environmental fellowships making a difference in the local community.

Eli Edlefson ’23 explains how blue vervain blooms
Environmental Stewardship fellow Eli Edlefson ’23 explains how blue vervain blooms over time from the bottom of the spike to the top. Edlefson is surveying plants and pollinators along the Powerline Trail in the Lillian Anderson Arboretum as part of a pollinator rehabilitation project.
For a summer Environmental Stewardship fellowship and Senior Integrated Project, Eli Edlefson ’23 is surveying plants and pollinators along the Powerline Trail in Lillian Anderson Arboretum. With almost no botany experience, Edlefson had to learn to identify all the flowering plants in the area with the help of a wildflower guide, Professor of Biology Ann Fraser and local botanist Russ Schipper.
Eli Edlefson uses his phone to identify wildflowers
Eli Edlefson’23 uses the Seek app from iNaturalist to identify a plant in the Lillian Anderson Arboretum. Both the Seek and iNaturalist apps have proven valuable tools in Edlefson’s Environmental Stewardship fellowship and Senior Integrated Project this summer, surveying plants and pollinators along the Powerline Trail in the Lillian Anderson Arboretum.

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.” 

To learn more about the project’s history and how you can help, visit the Pollinator Habitat Enhancement Project

Biology Student Gains Skills, Perspective Working at Kalamazoo Lab

Dwight Williams' lab at Dow Science Center
Maddy Harding ’22, third from left, was one of a group of K students performing research in
the lab of Roger F. and Harriet G. Varney Associate Professor of Chemistry Dwight Williams
last summer. Harding also holds a job at local lab Genemarkers, where she has assisted
in COVID-19 PCR testing.

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.   

A biology major with a psychology minor and neuroscience concentration, Harding would attend virtual classes during the day before going into the lab to prepare COVID test samples for PCR 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.” 

Maggie Harding '22, who has worked at Genemarkers lab, holding her Senior Integrated Project
Maddy Harding ’22 completed her Senior Integrated Project testing a drug that could
help protect against neurodegenerative diseases on roundworms. She has honed her
lab skills working for the local lab Genemarkers for the past two years.

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.”