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Enriching the Lives of Zoo Animals

It was straight out of Wild Kingdom.

Misha, an Amur tiger at Blank Park Zoo in Des Moines, approached the horned zebra, batted it with her front paws, then knocked down the prey, which clattered onto a pile of rocks. Resuming her attack, Misha tore off pieces with her powerful teeth, before slashing off the gold unicorn horn and then the entire head.

students constructing zebra-unicorn for tigerBut no live animals were harmed in the making of this production. The zebra, which indeed sported a gold unicorn horn, was constructed by Grinnell College students from animal-safe papier-mâché, paint, and cardboard.

The activity stemmed from Grinnell's Community Service Work-Study program and the Grinnell Science Project, a pre-orientation program for first-year students designed to increase representation from groups underrepresented in the sciences.

Group carries the painted zebra through the zoo“Creation and destruction — together that's our purpose with this project,” says Sunny Zhao ’18, a biology major from Naperville, Ill. “It would have been sad if the tiger hadn’t played with the zebra and destroyed it.”

“It was really satisfying to see the tiger tear the zebra apart,” adds Mackenzie “Max” Semba ’19, an undeclared major from Portland, Maine.

It helped that the zebra’s hollow stomach received a helping of meat before a zookeeper placed it inside the tiger exhibit.

Grinnell students have collaborated with the zoo for four years to make new and exciting enrichment items: giant bowling pins for rhinos and puzzles made from twine, milk cartons, raw pasta noodles, and origami cardboard for monkeys and birds.

Spectators watch though a window as Misha, the tiger, demolishes the zebra-unicornThose items help keep zoo animals active, says Megan Wright Walker, area supervisor for animal health at the zoo. “Here in the zoo we provide food for the animals,” she says. “They don’t have to hunt for a mate. They don’t have to hunt for somewhere to sleep. Enrichment items help to mentally stimulate the animals by giving them a challenge.” 

Sunny Zhao ’18 is a biology major from Naperville, Ill. Mackenzie “Max” Semba ’19 is an undeclared major from Portland, Maine.

Acclimated to Success

Born in Ambato, Ecuador, Alfredo Colina ’17 emigrated from his homeland to Washington, D.C., when he was 10 years old. Coming to Grinnell as a D.C. Posse Foundation scholar marked his first real experience outside of a big city.

“Being in a rural area surrounded by farms and corn was a change, definitely,” Colina says. “It wasn’t so much a culture shock as much as just a very distinct environment that I was placed in. I was, like, ‘This is new, but doable.’”

Arriving on campus for the first time with 9 other Posse cohorts seemed strange initially, but Colina says he adjusted very quickly. “Once you’re here,” Colina says, “you’re open to the great opportunities Grinnell has, and the Grinnell Science Project (GSP) was one of them.”

Settling Into College

A weeklong pre-orientation program, the GSP aims to develop the talents of first-year students interested in science and math, especially those from groups underrepresented in the sciences. To familiarize students with college life, they are invited to participate in mentoring opportunities and sample classes.

“[In the GSP] you are able to work with professors from Grinnell and other students who are potential science majors,” Colina says. “It helped before orientation to settle down and realize ‘You’re in Grinnell, it’s different, and it’s not the city.’ I really liked that I was able to go through that opportunity.”

Eye-Opening Experience

Alfredo Colina ’17 conducting resesarch in corn fieldNow a biology major, Colina worked last summer with associate professor Shannon Hinsa-Leasure on a Mentored Advanced Project (MAP) focused on bacteria and antibiotic resistance in agricultural settings. In November, he made an oral presentation at the Annual Biomedical Research Conference for Minority Students (ABRCMS) in Seattle.  

“It was super cool,” Colina says “I was feeling a little bit nervous because I was a student trying to explain what I did to all these major professionals that are big in the field of microbiology.”

Colina says he became more comfortable as he realized that his research — and his presentation style — stood out as distinct.

“A lot of students who presented were trying to explain the mechanisms of various genes,” Colina says. “I kind of took a macro approach to explain a microbiological problem and tried to make it accessible for everyone to understand even if you weren’t a science major.

“It was eye-opening to have people come up afterward and say, ‘Your research is really interesting; I would like you to potentially work for my lab for a summer.’” Colina says. “It was a really great networking opportunity.”

Redefining His Goals

Colina says his research experiences at Grinnell have reshaped his academic and career aspirations. Previously, he had been aiming for an M.D. program. His current plans are to apply for research opportunities next summer and eventually pursue an M.D./Ph.D. program.

“I have a strong connection to research now. Before I thought research was boring, and I didn’t want to be in a lab from 8 to 5, but I fell in love with it last summer,” Colina says. “I want to do microbiology research, dealing with bacteria and antibiotic resistance or some pathway that might lead to prevention of antibiotic resistance.

“I really like microbiology. I don’t see myself doing any other kind of research,” Colina says. “It’s interesting because people might not perceive that bacteria are all over the place, and not all bacteria are bad.

“Learning about what kind of bacteria help, making those distinctions, and making an addition to a scientific field that might have bigger applications in the future is super important.”

Alfredo S. Colina ’17 is a biology major and Posse scholar from Washington, D.C.

Antibiotic Resistance and Microbial Diversity

Shannon Hinsa-LeasureShannon Hinsa-Leasure, associate professor of biology, along with her students and collaborators, are researching ways to develop novel technology to study the diversity of antibiotic-resistance genes and how the genes can be transferred between bacteria.

The research is funded by a U.S. Department of Agriculture grant of $999,346 awarded to a team of researchers including Hinsa-Leasure, along with her collaborators at Iowa State University and the USDA Agricultural Research Service.

In addition, Hinsa-Leasure has received a one-year $20,262 grant from the Leopold Center for Sustainable Agriculture to expand on the USDA grant by investigating bacterial community structure in soils fertilized with animal manure. Both grants will support undergraduate research at Grinnell College.

The grants will enable researchers to monitor hundreds of genes related to antibiotic resistance, the spread of resistance, and microbial diversity in environmental samples at one time, providing a more in-depth characterization of environments than current technologies. The technologies can be used for many types of environments including, hospitals, farms and water systems, and will allow researchers to study if and how antibiotic resistance genes move in particular environments.

“I am delighted that Shannon has received these grants that will create new opportunities for our students to conduct collaborative, cutting-edge research,” says Michael Latham, dean of Grinnell College. “This research reinforces Grinnell’s commitment to active scholarship and inquiry-led learning opportunities that reach beyond our campus.”

Adina Howe, assistant professor in agricultural and biosystems engineering at Iowa State, leads the three-year USDA grant. This grant will support technology development, field sampling, laboratory experiments and workshops to disseminate the open-access bioinformatics pipelines to the broader research community.

“I feel very fortunate to be collaborating with a tremendous team of scientists, who are all sharing their expertise to address an important environmental issue — how do we detect and monitor movement of antibiotic-resistance genes in the environment,” Hinsa-Leasure says.

Hinsa-Leasure, an environmental microbiologist, first began investigating antibiotic-resistance genes in the environment near Grinnell in 2014. This project was instigated by one of her former students, Evan Griffith ’15, who was interested and concerned about the local environment.

“Evan and I began this work with a directed reading course to learn what was happening in the field,” recalls Hinsa-Leasure. “That course led us to the USDA in Ames and the development of a partnership that continues to flourish today.”

“I am excited that this project is continuing and that I made a small contribution,” says Griffith, who received his bachelor’s degree in biology from Grinnell. He recently returned from Australia, where he worked as a research intern on a project between Arid Recovery and the University of New South Wales. He hopes to pursue a master’s degree in conservation medicine at Tufts University.

Griffith is one of eight Grinnell undergraduates who already have participated in the project he and Hinsa-Leasure initiated.

“I am thrilled,” Hinsa-Leasure says, “that through this funding additional Grinnell students will have access to cutting-edge technologies and bioinformatics, which will allow us to advance the field.”

Our Microbial Neighbors

Adina HoweCome join in an interactive discussion of microbiology and how novel technologies have created opportunities to access and learn about our microbial neighbors and how they influence our lives.

Adina Howe, Iowa State University assistant professor of agricultural and biosystems engineering, will present the free, public biology seminar "Our Microbial Neighbors" at 11 a.m. Thursday, Dec. 3, in Robert N. Noyce ’49 Science Center, Room 2022. 

She will lead participants to explore how our gut microbes change with our diets, the importance and challenges of soil microbiology, and how microbes can help us monitor and understand water quality in Iowa lakes.

Howe is an expert in microbial ecology, soil health, water quality, big data, and metagenomics. She has had broad, interdisciplinary training, including microbiology, sustainable development, and engineering, and has been a staff scientist at Argonne National Laboratory where she continued studying microbial communities in environments such as the soil and gut.

Clark Lindgren, Iowa Professor of the Year

Clark Lindgren, Patricia A. Johnson Professor of Neuroscience and professor of biology, has been selected as the 2015 Iowa Professor of the Year.

The U.S. Professors of the Year Awards Program honors excellence in undergraduate instruction, recognizing professors who profoundly influence the lives and careers of their students. Lindgren is one of 35 state winners from across the nation.

A member of Grinnell's faculty since 1992, Lindgren has strived, as both a professor and an adviser, to help students from groups traditionally underrepresented in the sciences overcome external challenges and find success in scientific fields. He served as an early faculty director of The Grinnell Science Project, which is designed to increase retention and success of science students from backgrounds underrepresented in STEM fields.

Clark Lindgren talking with Yang Chen '17The former students who wrote letters of recommendation for Lindgren have been successful despite external challenges they faced because of their background. Lindgren said, "For each student I try to be appropriately demanding and yet encouraging at the same time, and that to me is really the essence of what good teaching is about – finding that balance."

Lindgren has continued to advise these students past graduation. One former student and nominator, who described herself as "woefully unprepared" to meet the expectations of the biology department when she arrived at Grinnell, said she owes much of her success to Lindgren. By graduation, she had been selected as a Rhodes Scholar, which she applied for at the encouragement of Lindgren, and later went on to the Johns Hopkins School of Medicine, the Bloomberg School of Public Health, and the Johns Hopkins Sydney Kimmel Cancer Center.

"I have achieved more, reached further, and contributed that which I would not have been able to otherwise because of Professor Lindgren's investment in me as a teacher and as a mentor," she wrote. "I would not be the learner, the teacher, or the cancer doctor I am today, were it not for him."

In addition to helping students pursue their goals in and out of the classroom, Lindgren is a pioneer of engaging, authentic, and interdisciplinary biology teaching methods. He was a co-architect of the upside-down biology curriculum, in which students are immersed in research from their first biology course. Now emulated across the country, the biology 150 course is, according to a colleague and nominator, "an important transition from faculty-centered teaching to student-centered learning."

Lindgren also helped create Grinnell's neuroscience concentration, now one of the largest concentrations on campus. The neuroscience concentration's curriculum, which attracts students from all majors and divisions, is interdisciplinary, including courses from biology, psychology, social sciences, and the humanities.

A celebrated professor and adviser, Lindgren is also being recognized for his scholarship. For the past three decades, he has been working to understand the remarkable ability of chemical synapses, the nexus between individual neurons, to change their behavior in response to the activity they experience. He has authored articles in 16 peer-reviewed publications.

Lindgren includes students in his research. Since arriving at Grinnell, he has worked closely with 64 undergraduate students researchers, almost 70 percent of whom have gone on to graduate school in neuroscience or a related field.

An engaged member of the Grinnell faculty, Lindgren has served as the chair of the biology department twice, the chair of the science division, and on various college-wide committees, such as the Personnel Committee and Executive Council, a faculty advisory committee to the president and dean.

For Lindgren, this award is a testament to the outstanding students and colleagues he works with each day at Grinnell.

The Council for Advancement and Support of Education launched the U.S. Professors of the Year Awards Program in 1981. That same year, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching began hosting the final round of judging, and in 1982, became the primary sponsor.

The program awards four national winners and one winner from each state every year.

Professors are judged on four criteria:

  • impact on and involvement with undergraduate students;
  • scholarly approach to teaching and learning;
  • contribution to undergraduate education in the institution, community, and profession; and
  • support from colleagues and former undergraduate students.

The Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching is an independent policy and research center that supports needed transformations in American education through tighter connections between teaching practice, evidence of student learning, the communication and use of this evidence, and structured opportunities to build knowledge.

Students Win Awards in National Statistics Competition

USPROCTwo groups of Grinnell College students won awards at this year’s Undergraduate Statistics Project Competition (USPROC) sponsored by the American Statistical Association and the Consortium for the Advancement of Undergraduate Statistics Education. USPROC is an annual national competition among undergraduate students in the United States.

Alex Schmiechen ’17 and Zina Ibrahim ’17 won first place in the subcategory “First Course in Statistics.” Their project, titled Upvote or Downvote: What Makes Yik Yak Posts Popular?, was completed as part of the course Applied Statistics (MAT 209).

Their study examined Yik Yak, the anonymous social medial platform that is widely used on college campuses, in which users can indicate their liking for a post by “upvoting” or “downvoting” it. Schmiechen and Ibrahim’s study aimed to “determine potential indicators of popularity” and counted the upvotes of posts based on categories such as amount of humor, academic level, love life relevance, and whether or not it was a question.

Clark Fancher ’15, Josh Vernazza ’15, and Zack Davis ’16 won second place in the subcategory “Intermediate-level Applied Statistics Course.” Their project was titled An Examination of Age of First Drink and Effects of Church Attendance by Gender, and was carried out in the course Statistical Modeling (MAT 310).

They initially came up with this topic due to its relevance on college campuses. “Since underage alcohol consumption is so rampant throughout college campuses, we thought a study examining the age of first drink consumption would be interesting,” Davis said. They used survival analysis to model drinking patterns in Iowa youth. They also found that male church-goers have their first drink later than their female counterparts, which was different from conclusions reached in previous literature.

The results of both studies are significant in part because they pertain to current issues. Schmiechen and Ibrahim’s study highlights that further analysis could “lead to further insight into popular culture” and also be “a tool to examine a student body’s mental health”. Fancher, Vernazza, and Davis’ study addresses the benefits of decreasing underage drinking, and discusses the efficacy of after-school church programs delaying the age of first drink consumption.

Both projects were from courses taught by Professor Shonda Kuiper of the Department of Mathematics and Statistics. These achievements highlight the College’s advancement in statistics education. “Students of Grinnell College are doing innovative research projects related to current events in their lives, while also utilizing advanced multivariate statistical modeling techniques,” Kuiper said.

In addition to a monetary award, both groups were invited to give a plenary talk on October 2, 2015, for the First Annual Electronic Undergraduate Statistics Research Conference.

Observing the Stars and Planets

If you’re interested in astronomy, “Grinnell is one of the best places you can go,” says Bob Cadmus, professor of physics. Grinnell — without offering a major in astronomy — has graduated about one student per year who goes on to earn a Ph.D. in astronomy.

Cadmus attributes that strong record to students’ focus on physics and the liberal arts as well as their independent work in astronomy.

Some of that work occurs in the Grant O. Gale Observatory, which sits on the north edge of campus, within easy walking distance of residence halls. Cadmus says the proximity to campus was intentional, to make it more accessible to students. Another plus — since the town of Grinnell is small, there’s little light pollution.

The Search for Exoplanets

Jack Muskopf ’16 and Andrew Baldrige ’17, both physics majors, are working in the observatory this summer on Mentored Advanced Projects. Their faculty mentor, Eliza Kempton, assistant professor of physics, studies exoplanets. More than 1,000 exoplanets — planets outside our solar system — have been discovered since 1995.

“We can look at transiting exoplanets fairly easily with our telescope,” Kempton says. The observatory has a 24-inch Cassegrain telescope. “We do real research with this thing.”

Muskopf and Baldrige have been testing a new camera, which will be installed on the telescope soon. Then they’ll be pulling all-nighters in the observatory, processing digital images of exoplanets that are passing in front of their own stars, up to 100 million light-years away.

Muskopf says he’s excited to work in the observatory and “get really high quality photos of stars and have some interesting, useful data.”

Baldrige says, “Every once in a while I sit back and think that I am looking at numbers on a screen right now, but these numbers represent that 100 million light-years away, I know that there’s a star that has a planet orbiting around it.”

Kempton hopes to start training students to use the telescope and help with the data processing. She says it’s an ideal place to get students involved, and they don’t need to be physics majors.

Attracting the Masses

All students are welcome to the observatory during open house events held throughout the year. Baldrige visited it during New Student Orientation his first year. “I looked at a galaxy and it was really clear in the telescope. It was cool because it was something you could never see with a hobbyist’s telescope,” he says.

Cadmus offers open house events to everyone from pre-school children to adults in the community, from current students to alumni. Every summer he offers a workshop for middle-school children and especially tries to interest girls in astronomy.

Jack Muskopf ’16 is from Millstadt, Ill.; Andrew Baldrige ’17 is from Ames, Iowa.

For the Love of Science

Before classes begin, the Grinnell Science Project (GSP) brings together selected students who are interested in science and creates a community that helps them feel comfortable with college life both inside and outside the classroom.

“GSP was a huge blessing. For one thing, the program got me a head start on understanding the confusing passageways of the mysterious Noyce Science Center. But it did so much more than that. I met a lot of people who shared my common interests, was acquainted with professors that I had class with later in my college career, and gained a lot of confidence in myself during GSP,” says Lizzie Eason ’17, who participated in the program last year.

GSP students meeting with a birdOne aspect of the program is a week-long pre-orientation  program.  Over the course of a week, students learn about the services and structures of the College.

The program responds to different learning styles — favoring workshop- and project-based classes in addition to lectures — and provides both role models and contexts for the study of science. “Grinnell students feel that they are part of a scientific community, we accommodate different learning styles with different pedagogical approaches, and we involve students in faculty research from the beginning of their experience here,” says Jim Swartz, Dack Professor of Chemistry.

Faculty members discuss various aspects of Grinnell’s academic program and strategies for excelling in science and mathematics courses. The GSP students participate in both sample classes and a research project.

“It was nice to just get used to the college environment without having to stress about classes. I could take time to really make friends, get advice from professors, and just enjoy myself, which is something I don't think I would have had much time to do if I had come to Grinnell when classes began,” says Eason.

Students work together to solve a puzzleIn the early 1990s, Grinnell observed that students — especially women, first-generation college students, and students of color — would enter Grinnell intending to major in the sciences, then fail to do well in the introductory courses and choose a major in another division. With data gathered from students, the College discovered that environmental and socioeconomic factors were interfering with students’ academic success in the sciences.

GSP teaches science the way science is actually practiced. It also creates a peer as well as faculty and staff support network for students. In addition to GSP participants, lots of other students have benefitted from curricular changes that accompanied the Grinnell Science Project.

“One of the most significant measures of success is that components of the Grinnell Science Project are now mainstream throughout our science curriculum,” says Swartz. Grinnell’s introductory biology course, which is required for all biology and biological chemistry majors is project-based. Introductory computer science courses are designed similarly, and mathematics, chemistry, physics, and psychology courses use a number of active learning techniques.

In the three years before GSP began, an average of 42 women and eight students of color graduated with science degrees each year. By 2008, each number had more than doubled. Ninety women and 21 students of color graduated with science degrees that year. Hundreds of students have participated in GSP, and thousands more benefited from curricular changes and mentoring relationships established by the program.

Lizzie Eason ’17 is from Lamoni, Iowa and has not yet declared a major.

2014 GSP students, faculty, and staff

2014 Grinnell Science Project