Molly Ratliff ’22 hopes to work in an environmental-studies field after she graduates from Kalamazoo College, making her senior integrated project (SIP) this summer an ideal experience. She is researching boreal toads at their known breeding grounds in Rocky Mountain National Park in Estes Park, Colorado, as a way to engage with conservation.
“Amphibians, such as boreal toads, are really great indicators of overall ecosystem health,” Ratliff said. “Their skin is highly permeable, making them vulnerable to environmental changes and toxins. Since amphibians are typically the first species to be impacted by changes in the environment such as climate change, they can show general trends of how other species may react.”
To be specific, in her research Ratliff is investigating how a skin disease that affects amphibians around the world—Batrachochytrium dendrobatidis or Bd—might be affecting the sizes of the toads at various locations and how this might relate to survivability. She performs surveys at dusk around lake shores, captures toads to mark them with pit tags, takes body measurements, and swabs them to test for the disease. The toads are then released and can be identified as they’re recaptured by their unique pit tags.
“If amphibian populations are not doing well in an ecosystem, it can be an indicator that there are stressors, toxins, imbalances, etc. within the entire system,” she said. “Amphibians also typically exist as both predators and prey, making them a crucial part of the food chain within an ecosystem.”
Ratliff’s work is an excellent example of the independent scholarship critical to the K-Plan, Kalamazoo College’s integrated approach to academics in the liberal arts and sciences. As a culmination of learning at K, all students explore a subject of their own choosing, resulting in an in-depth, graduate-level research thesis, performance or creative work. Learn more about how these projects fit into the K-Plan at kzoo.edu/k-plan.
Kalamazoo College faculty members Santiago Salinas and Dwight Williams, from the biology and chemistry departments respectively, have been awarded tenure, recognizing their excellence in teaching, scholarship and service to the College.
The honor signifies the College’s confidence in the contributions the professors will make throughout their careers. Their titles have been approved by the Board of Trustees and include promotion to associate professor.
Salinas, the Roger F. and Harriet G. Varney Assistant Professor of Biology, teaches classes such as vertebrate biology and human physiology. His research interests include his work in the K Fish Lab, where he and his student collaborators study the ways fish populations cope with changes in the environment. He was born in Argentina before attending the Lester B. Pearson United World College of the Pacific, earning his bachelor’s degree from College of the Atlantic, and receiving a Ph.D. from the School of Marine and Atmospheric Sciences at Stony Brook University.
Salinas then was a post-doc at the University of California-Santa Cruz and the Southwest Fisheries Science Center and was a visiting assistant professor at the University of the Pacific.
Williams, the Roger F. and Harriet G. Varney Assistant Professor of Chemistry, teaches classes such as organic chemistry at K. He earned a bachelor’s degree in chemistry from Coastal Carolina University in 2001 and a Ph.D. in organic chemistry from Virginia Commonwealth University in 2007 while researching immunosensor design.
Williams spent a year as a lecturer at Longwood University before becoming an assistant professor at Lynchburg College. At Lynchburg, he found a passion for the synthesis and structural characterization of natural products as potential neuroprotectants.
Williams learned more about those subjects after accepting a National Institutes of Health postdoctoral research fellowship at the Virginia Commonwealth University Medical College of Virginia Department of Pharmacology and Toxicology. During that fellowship, he worked in medicinal chemistry and pharmacology, where his work was published in six peer-reviewed journals.
AcademicInfluence.com is endorsing Kalamazoo College as one of the top four-year schools in the country where students can excel in the liberal arts, according to rankings released this week.
The website is the information center for a data-analytics company that measures the influence and thought leadership of a college’s or university’s faculty and alumni, providing prospective students a place where they can draw insightful comparisons between schools.
K, at No. 45, is the only institution in Michigan to reach the list of top liberal arts colleges. The website mentions K’s thought leadership on subjects such as political science, economics, sociology, biology, literature, mathematics and philosophy as just a few of the reasons why.
“Job demands are changing,” AcademicInfluence.com Academic Director Jed Macosko said. “More is expected of today’s college graduates. This makes the liberal arts appealing and practical. Students who can demonstrate a breadth of skills and the flexibility to take on anything asked of them are finding greater success postgraduation. … If you’re a student looking for a well-rounded education, these schools should be at the top of your list.”
The K-Plan is K’s distinctive approach to the liberal arts and sciences. Its open curriculum utilizes rigorous academics, international and intercultural experiences, a hands-on education and independent scholarship to help students think critically, solve problems creatively, and collaborate across cultures and languages.
“A liberal arts model provides the most thorough college education because it teaches students how to attain not just one, but a variety of skillsets that employers desire, while engaging with the world,” Director of Admission Suzanne Lepley said. “To be named among the top 50 liberal arts institutions in the country is an honor for Kalamazoo College as it shows how well we prepare students for a global, modern workplace.”
An additional group of students, whose interests could be connected with environmental opportunities, worked with the Center for Environmental Stewardship and Director Sara Stockwood.
“I think it’s been a valuable experience for everyone, even if they didn’t go on study abroad,” Stockwood said of the students who worked for organizations such as the Kalamazoo Watershed Council, the Michigan Lakes and Streams Association and Sarett Nature Center.
“The students I’ve talked to said they’ve wanted to get an internship before, they just weren’t sure how to make it fit in their academic plan,” she said. “But when this class came up it fit well and it matched their class schedule. It was a challenge for them to figure out how to work virtually, and some of them felt a little lost at first, yet they gained the skills they needed to figure it out. I think that will help them in their classes and future jobs, especially if they have virtual components.”
Amanda Dow, a biology major, worked with Melissa DeSimone, the executive director of the Michigan Lakes and Streams Association (MLSA), which is a statewide nonprofit that unites individuals; lake, stream and watershed associations; organizations; and corporations that share an interest the preserving inland lakes and streams for generations to come. Her work experience included writing newsletter articles highlighting the organization’s virtual convention this year, contributing to its printed articles, and reformatting and updating several brochures.
“I have a background in writing so this was a good chance for me to practice in different mediums,” Dow said. “I wrote a review of the convention sessions along with a biography of myself for the newsletter. They also come out with a newspaper and the biggest chunk of my internship went to updating and reformatting their brochures. It helped a lot that when I first got there I could choose what I wanted to do.”
Andrew Wright, a German and biology major, said he felt a little directionless with where he wanted to apply his majors professionally after graduation, until he interned with the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. The organization aims to protect, preserve and promote the Kalamazoo River and its tributaries for current area residents and future generations.
“Through developing a new interactive digital dashboard with the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council members, my work will help users see the different types of chemical contaminants in the Kalamazoo area and how they affect the types of fish here,” Wright said. “Following the motto of the Watershed, we want to make that information as accessible as possible so people can learn how their communities’ ecosystems have been impacted. The Kalamazoo River has unfortunately suffered its fair share of PCB runoff from paper mills and oil spills, and we want to create ways for people to be knowledgeable and be mindful of how we affect our surrounding environments.”
Natalie Barber, a biology major and psychology minor, joined Wright in working for the Kalamazoo River Watershed Council. She researched fresh water mussels, which filter small organic particles such as bacteria and algae out of lakes and streams, naturally purifying them. Part of that environmental research involved interviewing Daelyn Woolnough, a Central Michigan University biology faculty member and freshwater mussels expert, leading to website content and social media posts for the watershed council.
With K’s academic schedule, it was important to Barber that she could undertake the internship as a part of her term and she hopes more students at the College will have the same opportunity.
“It’s important we know the effects of global warming and climate change and how they threaten mussels,” Barber said. “We especially have those threats in Kalamazoo because we had the paper mills that put all the PCBs in the water, plus we had the 2010 oil spill. Just knowing about those bigger issues, and also the lesser-known issues like invasive species, which is a big deal to freshwater mussels. Things the general public might not realize are such a big deal like moving boats from lake to lake without cleaning them, that’s important information we should share so we can protect the organisms within our areas. I felt like I was doing something positive toward my career goals. I think these internships should be offered every term because I thought mine was that useful.”
To conclude the class and their environmental internships, each student provided a final visual presentation with screenshots and pictures from their projects. Stockwood said students each had about three minutes to present what they did, what they learned and why it matters.
“They took it very seriously and it was fun because the students didn’t fully know what everybody else was doing,” she said. “They found a lot of similarities in their experiences over time with being lost in the beginning, independently working and having some ownership by the second half of their projects. I hope something like this will continue. It’s important to recognize that it’s not study abroad, but I think the experience was valuable, and I think the students feel it was valuable, too.”
When a listserv between epidemiologists first mentioned a unique syndrome identified in Wuhan, China, Natasha Bagdasarian ’99 sensed trouble. It was December 31, 2019, and an atypical pneumonia outbreak had been linked to a novel coronavirus. At that time, there was still uncertainty on the transmissibility and severity of the new pathogen, and epidemiologists were put on alert.
Bagdasarian was working as an infectious disease physician and epidemiologist at National University Hospital in Singapore, where her job involved outbreak response, surveilling infections and contact tracing for contagious illnesses. To Bagdasarian, Singapore seemed to be a potential hot spot for this coronavirus, which eventually spiraled into the COVID-19 pandemic.
“Singapore was right in the path of this because we had a lot of direct flights between Singapore and Wuhan, and this was happening right before Chinese New Year when a lot of Singaporeans travel,” Bagdasarian said.
The first case in Singapore was confirmed on January 23. The earliest cases were individuals who had traveled from China, until local transmission began to develop in February and March. The Kalamazoo College alumna’s role became vital in Singapore’s response to COVID-19, especially when it came to contact tracing, a key strategy in fighting the pandemic.
“For every COVID patient, we would have to find out where they’ve been in the last 14 days and give a very detailed summary to the Ministry of Health,” Bagdasarian said. “Then, the Ministry of Health would go to those people and places and look for contacts. Every patient that came into our hospital, we’d sort of track their path and make sure there were no breaches in their care and that nobody in the hospital had been exposed.”
If there was good news at this point, 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. The synergy Bagdasarian and her team developed with that knowledge, despite overseeing nearly 1,500 beds, led to zero cases of health care workers and non-COVID-19 patients contracting COVID-19.
“Everybody remembered the protocols,” Bagdasarian said. “When we needed additional capacity, we constructed a big outdoor tent as our emergency department overflow. Everything we did was sort of templated from SARS. It was a beautiful response to be a part of.”
Soon, her duties expanded, and she started examining cases outside hospitals in Singapore’s densely populated areas.
“Those settings in Singapore include migrant worker dormitories, and some of them house thousands of workers,” Bagdasarian said. “It was like taking the skills that we had learned in the hospital and extrapolating them to completely different settings to figure out strategies to stop transmission when you sometimes have up to 20 people living in one room.”
Obviously, social distancing was impossible and distinctive approaches were necessary.
“There are other strategies you have to use such as cohorting, where you try to put together people who all have been exposed or have all been infected. That was really interesting work and it got me thinking about health care disparities, and how vulnerable populations have been impacted by COVID.”
Bagdasarian returned to Michigan with her husband and young child this summer, when her husband’s job with General Motors was transferred back to the U.S. However, the lessons she learned in Singapore are serving the world still today. She now serves the World Health Organization as a consultant and the Michigan Department of Health and Human Services as a senior public health physician.
“What keeps me up at night is thinking of the unknown,” she said. “COVID is bad. In the infectious disease community, we always knew there was a potential for something like this to happen. But COVID will not be the last zoonotic infection with pandemic potential to cross over to humans, and the next one could be worse.”
A Match Made at K
Natasha met her husband, Vahan, also ’99, when they were first-year students at K. The couple met during orientation and were lab partners in their first biology course, a class on evolution.
“She seemed so genuinely happy to be at K and eager to get the year started,” Vahan said. “I was more hesitant, but her positive energy was evident on day one and we quickly became good friends.”
That lab and class experience helped steer Vahan away from the hard sciences and toward an economics major and sociology minor. Conversely, they solidified Natasha’s interest in biology. Natasha added a second major in psychology and an extended, nine-month study abroad experience in Australia to her K-Plan.
That extended experience was fateful because it put Natasha behind schedule in applying to medical school. That was all the reason she needed to first pursue a master’s degree in public health at the University of Michigan.
“While on foreign study, I read a book called, The Hot Zone,” Natasha said. “It talks about investigating Ebola outbreaks and I was absolutely captivated. That sort of propelled me through medical school with this goal in sight that I was going to be an infectious disease doctor and work in outbreaks.”
She attended medical school at Wayne State University before serving an internal medicine residency and an infectious diseases fellowship at the University of Michigan.
After Natasha’s education was complete, Vahan had an opportunity to work for General Motors in Singapore. Natasha supported Vahan and followed him by taking a leap of faith with no guarantee she would be able to work. Medical training often is specific to an individual country, and many countries don’t accept American medical training.
However, “Singapore at that time, they were still allowing some American medical trainees, and I ended up working at the most wonderful hospital,” Natasha said. “I don’t know how I got so lucky. It was five years of training for a COVID-like scenario under a boss who had years of experience working for an arm of the World Health Organization that does outreach to low- and middle-income countries when they experience outbreaks.”
To complicate the scenario, Vahan—after three years in Singapore—was offered a chance to become the CFO for General Motors in the Africa and Middle East Region, meaning a move to Dubai. Fortunately, the hospital allowed Natasha to telecommute and continue her role with occasional visits back.
“It was a seven-and-a-half-hour flight from Singapore to Dubai and I worked remotely across time zones, but we made it work,” Natasha said. “I had a team on the ground that was absolutely wonderful. We would have Zoom calls a couple times a day, and then I would fly to Singapore every month. I did that for about two years when COVID hit. Then, I went to Singapore to work on the COVID response.”
That opportunity to work remotely until COVID-19 hit benefited Singapore, and continues to benefit the World Health Organization and the State of Michigan in her current roles. In the meantime, Vahan emphatically praises Natasha and the work she’s done to fight the pandemic.
“There aren’t words really to describe how proud I am of Natasha,” Vahan said. “She has spent countless sleepless nights working on this pandemic, but this is the norm. I’ve watched Natasha dive into various other outbreaks and give the same dedication and attention. Her love for her work and desire to help people is inspirational. Now that we are home in Michigan, I think it is very fitting that she can transfer that passion to her home state and work to keep us as safe as possible.”
Jake Osen and Zach Brazil, both ’21, are tabulating deer in Kalamazoo-area neighborhoods and need volunteers to submit pictures through the free mobile app iNaturalist of the deer they find. The pictures will help the students identify where deer populations are reaching problematic levels in local neighborhoods.
When pictures are uploaded, the app helps identify the variety of deer the user has found and pinpoints their location. Osen, Brazil and other scientists then will confirm what the app finds and use the location data to ascertain what’s attracting deer to the area.
They expect a loss of habitat caused by encroaching neighborhoods to be a primary cause, although others are likely to be contributing factors.
“Some neighborhoods have creeks and parks,” Osen said. “Some neighborhoods have residents who feed deer. Once we have a rough estimate of the deer population, we can compare the different areas and see what’s bringing deer into the neighborhoods.”
Participants can be casual photographers and there’s no need for professional-quality images. When asked for tips on photographing deer, Osen and Brazil said it’s easiest to find them earlier in the morning or later at night. It can be difficult to maintain complete silence, but deer are a little less skittish in neighborhoods where they typically are near people anyway.
To download the iNaturalist app, go into the App Store (iPhone) or Google Play (Android) on a smartphone and search for iNaturalist. After downloading it, create a free account using an email address, social media account or Google account.
The app will ask to use your location. After confirming permission, use the “Explore” tab to find observations submitted by others. Click the “More” tab and search “Projects” for “Deer populations in the residential areas of Kalamazoo” to volunteer for Osen and Brazil.
After joining, simply upload the pictures of deer you find in Kalamazoo.
“We’d appreciate help from anyone that’s able to download the app,” Brazil said. “We’re hoping to have our observations done by August. We hope to have most of the deer identified in the pictures by mid-August and a first draft of the SIP done by the first or second week of the trimester. But we’d encourage people to keep posting images. The more numbers the better.”
Imagine, as a 14-year-old child, seeing your mother endure breast cancer. How might that affect you? For Brandon Wright ’21, it prompted him to attend his mom’s chemo and radiation treatments.
“She went through chemo and radiation for a year,” said Wright, a biology major and physics minor from Dexter, Michigan. “I went to her treatments to understand them better. I still remember them like they were yesterday. It was an early moment when I realized that something bigger than me was going on.”
Thankfully, Wright’s mom today is a survivor. And by the time she was cancer-free, her son was inspired to seek a career in medicine. A physical therapist by trade, Mom helped arrange some job shadowing with doctors for Wright during his high school years, and he plans to attend medical school after graduating from Kalamazoo College. In the meantime, Wright is embracing a role as an emergency medical technician (EMT).
Wright trained as an EMT after his first year at K, realizing he would need to spend hands-on time with patients to optimize his chances of getting into medical school. After more than 256 hours of accelerated coursework that summer—and several certification tests and clinical trials afterward—he was offered a part-time job working for Life EMS in Kalamazoo.
“I thought I would do something I knew I would like rather than something I thought I had to do,” Wright said. “The exciting thing is we can get a not-so-serious call, and then, in the next second, all of a sudden we’re called to treat a cardiac arrest. The unpredictable nature of the job keeps me on my toes because at any second, it could be something new.”
Cardiac arrest is among the most serious calls Wright responds to and he remembers the first time he responded to one in March 2019.
“I was still in training and the call was for an 8-year-old boy,” Wright said. “My trainer had me participate in CPR because I was brand new, and that shook me for a while. I’ve probably responded to 10 or more cardiac arrests since then and, thanks to my trainers and partners, I feel I’ve developed the skills and mental capacity to handle them. It’s relatively straight forward for me now.”
The COVID-19 pandemic has affected Wright on the job. Ambulance dispatchers began using a code over the radio to let EMTs know when they were responding to a scenario where coronavirus could be present. That typically means Wright and his colleagues wear face shields, gowns and N-95 masks in addition to normal protective standards during the call, and take special steps to wipe down the ambulance and change clothes afterward.
Wright and his colleagues have found coronavirus to especially be a problem in the homeless population in Kalamazoo. With that knowledge, and with additional experiences in responding to emergencies such as gunshot wounds and overdoses, Wright recognizes his privilege as a student, which has fueled his desire to be involved in the community and help others one day as a doctor.
“The biggest thing I’ve realized is how many emergencies there can be anywhere,” he said. “At any time, we might have 10 trucks out just to cover all the emergencies. That’s really opened my eyes to how many people need help. It has confirmed my desire to go into medicine.”
To further his community involvement, Wright in the 2020-21 academic year will serve as a President’s Student Ambassador. The student leaders serve as an extension of President Jorge G. Gonzalez’s hospitality at events and gatherings, welcoming alumni and guests of the College with a spirit of inclusion.
“Many students get caught up in going to school, but there are a lot of ways we can integrate more into the community,” Wright said. “I wanted to be an ambassador because I wanted to bring my experiences to the table to start that conversation about involvement. I also want to hear from alumni about their own K experiences and take those lessons back to other students.”
With the Day of Gracious Living expected soon, along with its traditions including community service, Wright reflected on what he’s been most grateful for in his time at K.
“I think I’m most grateful for the fact that K gave me the opportunity to study abroad in Quito, Ecuador,” he said. “Even further than my community experiences in Kalamazoo, I was able to compare and contrast them on a global level with what I experienced in the lower-income country of Ecuador. Learning about some of their disparities in public health allowed me to recognize some ways that the U.S. system is also failing many. It is no doubt an experience that I will remember and value as I pursue a career in health care.”
The K-Plan teaches students to adapt to the unexpected situations of our ever-changing world. When the Day of Gracious Giving is announced, please make a gift to support K’s robust academic and experiential learning opportunities that help prepare the leaders and problem solvers of tomorrow.
There’s been a buzz in the national news as Asian hornets, also called murder hornets, have appeared for the first time in the northwestern U.S. The two-inch-long invasive insects have frightening stinging power and are significant predators of honeybees.
As the world marks World Bee Day on May 20, Kalamazoo College Biology Professor Ann Fraser said she doesn’t expect Asian hornets to arrive in Michigan any time soon but they could be a threat to local honeybees if they arrive.
“I got to see some of these Asian hornets when we were in India in December,” Fraser said. “Some people were fighting them off with sticks or even cricket bats. But can they survive in this climate with Michigan’s winter? I’m not sure of their range in terms of temperature tolerance. And are they going to decimate the honeybee population? Probably not, but they’ll certainly take out some hives.”
Nonetheless, climate change, habitat loss and pesticides are already threatening bees worldwide and have been for years. That makes World Bee Day—which marks the 1734 birthday of Slovenia-born Anton Janša, a pioneer in modern-day beekeeping—essential for preservation. The international affair, established in 2018 by the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations, recognizes the world’s 20,000 species of bees, including about 465 in Michigan. A number of these are in decline, including some of our bumblebees. Fraser said habitat loss and pesticides are of particular concern as food sources are disappearing for bees, and neonicotinoids, which are pesticides chemically similar to nicotine, are deadly for them.
To work against the declines caused by these threats, swarms of World Bee Day events will be conducted virtually this year, and Fraser recommends acting locally. For example:
Fraser is recruiting citizen scientists from nine counties in Southwest Michigan for the Southwest Michigan Bee Watch. She and her students, including Niko Nickson ’21, are tracking bumblebee diversity and measuring local restoration efforts. Residents from Allegan, Barry, Berrien, Branch, Calhoun, Cass, Kalamazoo, St. Joseph and Van Buren counties are invited to participate. Learn more about volunteering at the organization’s website.
You can take the sting out of habitat loss for bees by planting a diverse array of native wildflowers that provide food for pollinators. Minimize your use of insecticides and shelter bees by providing bare ground, limiting mulch in flower beds or providing a stem nest. A stem nest typically is a wood block with drilled holes in various sizes and hollow plant stems or paper tubes. Varieties are available at many hardware stories, gardening stores and retail centers.
To bee or not to bee is not the question: bees are vital to humans. And when it comes to World Bee Day, Fraser says, “Anything that puts the spotlight on them can help them thrive.”
At least one Kalamazoo College student is serving on the front lines in the world’s fight against COVID-19, comforting those who fear they might have coronavirus.
Armed with three years of experience as an emergency medical technician, Maddie Odom ’20 is volunteering at a drive-through coronavirus testing site at the former Michigan State Fairgrounds in Detroit. There, Odom volunteers for more than nine hours per shift, six days a week, to serve as many as 800 people a day through the Coronavirus Community Care Network, a coalition of local governments and health services.
Volunteers like Odom are serving people experiencing multiple symptoms of coronavirus such as a persistent cough, a fever of at least 100 degrees, a sore throat and shortness of breath. They also have a prescription from a doctor to receive a coronavirus test.
Odom said as many as 42 percent of the people receiving services on a given day have tested positive, and the care network expects to perform about 14,400 tests through May 8. Detroit has drawn international media attention for recording nearly 5,500 cases of COVID-19 as of April 7.
“Everyone I work with is pretty exhausted, but it’s pretty rewarding,” Odom said. “Working together, we know what we’re doing is helping in some way.”
Odom’s regular duties have varied from testing patients to directing traffic and checking IDs — on top of carrying her spring term course load as she prepares for graduation.
Many might consider Odom to be a hero for her volunteerism and bravery while facing a pandemic, although she sees it as community service enabled by her health, her training and the fact she currently lives alone so she doesn’t have to worry about taking the virus home to her family.
“I know it’s a time when people feel kind of helpless because you can’t leave your house,” she said. “I’m just glad I can do something to help.”
Odom expanded her passion for public health when she took a public health course at K led by Director of Careers in Health and Medicine Karika Parker. Separately, Odom has pursued emergency medicine as a wilderness first responder, a summer camp nurse and an EMT for an ambulance company. Since, she has decided to seek a career as a physician’s assistant.
Now, Odom relies on faculty members such as Visiting Professor of Biology Sara Tanis and students such as her K women’s lacrosse teammates for support. Together, they collect goody bags that contain items such as hand sanitizer and treats for health care, sanitation and shelter workers in the Detroit area to supplement Odom’s efforts.
“For me, one of the very best part of teaching is watching my students evolve into strong and vibrant members of their communities,” Tanis said. “Maddie has taught me so much over the last year about perseverance. Even when she’s in a situation where most people would give up, she just keeps pushing forward. Here’s to you, Maddie. I’ve never been more proud.”
When Assistant Professor of Biology Santiago Salinas learned that Kalamazoo College would be transitioning to distance learning for the spring semester, he knew how he felt. “I was bummed,” said Salinas. Without meeting face-to-face in a classroom or lab, how would his students connect? How would they grasp the hands-on skills they would traditionally experience in a face-to-face classroom, like animal dissection and model work?
“I needed to pump myself up for the quarter,” Salinas said. Internet research yielded inspiration, and soon Salinas had created a movie trailer for his vertebrate biology class — complete with atmospheric soundtrack and compelling narrative voiceover.
Salinas sent the trailer to his class. “I was honest with them, as I usually am in class anyway, and I told them I was having a hard time concentrating,” Salinas said. “I explained that I was bummed out that we wouldn’t be meeting face to face.” His students responded positively, sharing that the trailer had motivated them and made them laugh. When Salinas posted the trailer to Twitter, the outside world responded similarly. That feedback and connection re-energized Salinas as he moved forward with further classroom innovations.
“Twitter has been great for ideas,” Salinas said, describing how his search for inspiration and distance learning materials caused him to reframe his approach. He now sees himself as a curator. “There’s a lot of stuff out there — videos that are so much better than anything that I could put together, supplementing my slides and narration,” Salinas said.
Now, Salinas has high hopes for his vertebrate biology class. “This is forcing me to think about how I do things, and how I decide to prioritize content. Sometimes it’s good to be shocked because you start to reassess things,” Salinas said. “For the students, my hope is that they realize that they are not at K for the grades. I hope they recognize that they are driven intrinsically by what they are interested in, because they are, and that they do biology because they enjoy it.”
Salinas said that he has intentionally encouraged his students to provide feedback regarding biology-specific skills they would like to learn. When most of his students expressed interest in improving their grasp of scientific writing, Salinas quickly adjusted his assignments accordingly. “Maybe this wasn’t something we would cover in a normal quarter,” Salinas said, “But I think it’s going to make for a better course, and a better course for next year.”
As for Salinas’ earlier worries about dissection? “Well, I just finished packaging frogs, sharks, pigeons, and other critters. I will be mailing them out to our young biologists and we’ll do the dissections remotely!” Salinas said.