On July 1, 2014, I officially started my new job as an assistant professor of biology at Wabash College in Indiana, leaving the Langkilde lab behind. (But can you ever really leave the Langkilde lab? The answer is ‘no’, based on all the data analysis and manuscripts that need finishing …). With the new job came a whirlwind of teaching-related activities: writing syllabi, grading, preparing lectures, designing lab activities, grading, purchasing supplies, grading, meeting with students, attending teaching workshops, and grading. (Also, grading). This has been rewarding and interesting work, especially since I have very intimate class sizes (5 and 16) and am teaching topics that I’m really interested in. But, since this blog focuses on the life of academic biologists outside the classroom, I’ll forgo discussing teaching and instead talk about my experience so far trying to launch a research program in the context of a teaching college.
Wabash College is a small liberal arts college (aka, “SLAC”). As such, the primary responsibility of the faculty is teaching rather than scholarship and research. However, the college expects, and provides opportunities for, faculty to remain active in their fields. And, I would argue, this increases the quality of faculty teaching and creates priceless educational experiences for students who become engaged in faculty research programs. As a consequence of Wabash’s support of research, I was fortunate to have my own lab space, the opportunity to use several animal rooms, access to the college’s private virgin forest ~30 miles away, a generous amount of start-up funds to purchase equipment and supplies, and regular access to faculty research support funds.
My lab space was previously occupied for many years by a small mammal field biologist, Dr. David Krohne (see his textbook here – I think the one reviewer of it is holding back a bit with the stars …). I therefore inherited an interesting array of scientific equipment. Many binoculars and cameras (which, unfortunately, were mostly film cameras) lined the shelves, including some night vision gear. Equipment for building field structures and managing study sites included all kinds of saws, wire, hammers and nails, and metal stakes and tags. There were several slide projectors and many slides of photographs of plants and field sites of unknown significance. I filed away notebooks full of data, including some data collected by Krohne’s own predecessors. Most interestingly, I found a student zoology thesis project from 1964 documenting the amphibians and reptiles of Montgomery County (where Wabash College resides). Many of these herps had never been noted to occur in the county (and may not anymore), which lead me to track down the former student to see if he’d be interested in publishing these county records. As it turns out, this student was William S. Parker, who became a professor and herpetologist (and also studied fence lizards, like the Langkilde Lab!) I’m planning to work with him to publish these records, which would make this my first publication with a Wabash undergrad (albeit 50 years after he graduated!).
One idea I initially had for a research project was to study some interesting potential behavioral, physiological, and ecological differences between two species of related salamanders (the red-backed salamander, Plethodon cinereus, and the zig-zag salamander, P. dorsalis) which I anticipated would occupy Allee Memorial Woods, the college’s forest property. With my limited time, I’ve only been able to visit the woods when taking Ecology students there for lab activities. Fortunately, this provided me with 8 2-hr sessions in the woods over September and October during which I could either survey for the salamanders myself while students collected data, or could use the students to help search for salamanders as part of a lab exercise teaching study design and fieldwork protocols. The latter proved most useful – several of my students uncovered a location where several red-backed salamanders, a single zig-zag salamander, and a slimy salamander (P. glutinosus) all occurred within a couple meters of each other. Subsequently, the weather became cool and damp enough that red-backed salamanders began turning up all over the forest (though at disappointingly low densities). However, only that single zig-zag salamander was ever found. So my plans have met the reality of the situation on the ground: so far (and maybe it will change in the spring) zig-zag salamanders are not abundant enough to support the types of projects I hoped to do. However, new opportunities also presented themselves. The first, I realized that the color polymorphism that occurs within red-backed salamanders – a well-tread topic of research – could make a good system to explore some of the same questions. The red-backed salamanders are abundant enough that I could collect reasonable numbers of them, and I could readily keep them in the animal rooms – making them easily accessible to undergraduate research assistants with limited time between classes. Second, I learned more about another study system and made fortuitous connection with another researcher.
At Allee Memorial Woods, there is a long history of studying a local population of eastern box turtles (Terrapene c. carolina). Research began in the 1950’s by a former Wabash faculty, Elliott Williams – working with William S. Parker – that produced a 30 year population study. As a charming species with a historical connection to Wabash and of conservation interest, I quickly started toying with potential ways I could work with box turtles. Just as I started considering these ideas, I was put into touch with Steve Kimble, a post-doctoral researcher at nearby Purdue University who wanted to survey the turtles at Allee for infections by ranavirus, an emerging pathogen that we know little about. With Steve in the lead, I tagged along to set up a crowdfunding campaign to provide funds for genetic tests of ranavirus and (most excitingly) the use of trained box turtle-tracking dogs. The project was successfully funded and the dogs were brought in over a weekend. I again implemented my teaching responsibilities into the research program by bringing several students from my Ecology course (one of which needed an opportunity to make up a field trip later in the semester), and the students got a novel experience by assisting with processing the turtles. The dogs turned up 15 turtles. This was less than expected, but we don’t know yet whether we ought to attribute this to a population decline or relatively cool weather.
We are still waiting on the ranavirus test results, but I’m thinking about ways I can continue to utilize the box turtles for my research questions and integrate them into my teaching. I observed, and Steve confirmed, that some turtles tended to be very shy (hiding in their shells for a long period time) while others seemed bold (readily emerging from their shells and apparently unfazed by the human presence). Having studied behavioral variation (personality) before, I was very excited about the possibility of studying personality in these turtles. Tadpoles and salamanders are great study organisms, but the turtles will have a key advantage: they are much larger, meaning I can collect blood samples (to link physiological status to personality) and I can attach radiotransmitters for tracking their movements in the field (to link broad-scale behavior in nature to personality). The first lab activities of the semester in my fall Ecology class are centered around exposing the students to research techniques and familiarity with working in the field, in order to prepare them to develop original group projects. I’m thinking radiotracking turtles and conducting personality assays in the field will make for a really good lab activity, and will give me ~10 field assistants for each of two days – not a bad way to kill two birds with one stone.
Finally, I’m continuing my tangential work on scorpion evolutionary ecology and behavior. Scorpions require little care, which makes them good for a busy teaching schedule in which I have only scattered blocks of time to do research. Furthermore, their unusual nature and (appearance of) danger make them an exciting subject of study for undergraduates. This has drawn two strong students to me who have already started collaborating with me on a scorpion study. Thus far, they have proven reliable and have produced enough data to begin to reveal interesting trends. By recruiting strong students and using a ‘forgiving’ study system, I’ve already been able to begin putting together a scorpion research project without detracting from my teaching responsibilities.
So that is the story of my first few months trying to remain an active researcher while focusing my attention on being an effective and dedicated teacher. It creates many challenges, but they are not insurmountable when the projects are scaled to the resources available, the student assistants are talented, the study systems are convenient, collaborative opportunities are utilized, and teaching is blended seamlessly into research. I can’t really assess the success of any of this yet, though, so I’ll have to return to this blog in a couple years when I’ll know how everything turned out. But, I think I’m off to a good start!