January 21, 2011
Dear Alumni and Friends,
Greetings from the Biology Department. It is -25 F outside right now and the walk to work was punctuated by the cracks and pops of contracting wood in the trees along Ole Ave.
It has been a few years (1999) since our last newsletter so there are many changes and much to report about life in the Biology Department over the intervening 11 years. One thing that never changes, however, is bright, inquisitive students and an engaged, research active, and caring faculty. Biology remains the most popular major on campus and this year we will graduate nearly 120 majors, one of our larger graduating classes which is wonderful but poses interesting challenges as we continue our efforts to infuse research throughout our curriculum.
We are in our third year in our new spaces in Regents Hall and are loving it. The bright, open spaces and many, heavily used, student study areas are such a contrast to the “old” Science Center and have greatly enhanced both teaching and learning. The building, design effort led by Dave Van Wylen, was certified as LEED Platinum, and energy statistics from over the past year shows that it continues to function even better than anticipated in terms of energy use.
Notable over the past few years was the retirement of Gene Bakko and assumption by Kathy Shea of the duties of Curator of Natural Lands. Gene still has an office on campus and continues his efforts on behalf of the natural lands. Noted also is the passing of Dan Palm (2009) and Alice Burton (2010) who both contributed so many things to their students and the department.
At this writing, Ted Johnson is leading a group of students on the Peru medical service/learning course, Steve Freedberg is in Ecuador with another group of students and Eric Cole and students are studying Island Biology in the Bahamas. Kevin Crisp is staying closer to home working with students in the Mayo Innovation Scholars program as is Sara Fruehling who is teaching Biology of Women. A special course that was taught recently was Jay Demas' Nature and Nurture course. Henry Kermott may also be thinking about nature and nurture as he spends a year on sabbatical working on, among other things, his wren opus. We had another great group of students in the Biology in South India program, and Mike Swift and Anne Walter spent last year in India as Fulbright scholars. Two biology graduates of the class of 2010 received Fulbrights last year, and a current biology major was recently awarded a Goldwater Scholarship.
Two students accompanied John Schade to Siberia as part of the Polaris Project. Faculty continue to work with students on a variety of research projects including the biochemistry and cell biology of lipid storage (Laura Listenberger), actin translation (Kim Kandl), the distribution of deer on the natural lands (John Giannini), the population genetics of Bahamian Scaly Pearl Oysters (Jean Porterfield), the food resources of small mammals (Diane Angell) and ecosystem assessment of an impaired coldwater brook trout stream (Stephanie Schmidt).
Finally, thanks to the many of you who responded to the survey last year as part of our self study, and the 300+ folks who responded to our email in December asking for alumni news. Also, a big thank you to Tory Borovsky for putting together and editing this newsletter. Best wishes to all of you for a productive and joy filled year.
Charles Umbanhowar Jr.
by Katie Halvorson '11
When I first met Professor Gene Bakko, I was in the middle of my second year at St. Olaf and still wavering somewhere between the undesired “Undecided Major” and whichever degree caught my fancy on any given day (Math today? How about Spanish? Chemistry? Dance?). When I took Gene’s vertebrate biology course in the spring, however, my undergraduate flip-flopping came to a sudden halt. Although I had always been interested in the subject of biology and had set that major on my mind’s backburner long before, it was Gene who lit the spark. Since that fateful class, I have never wavered in my decision to pursue a biology degree. Not only was his course material, itself, fascinating (it’s hard to go wrong with early-morning bird watching, listening to frog chorusing, or skinning and stuffing squirrels), but somehow Gene brought it all to life, infusing every lecture and field excursion with an inexhaustible passion and good humor for the subject, which his students, including myself, could not help but emulate.
Gene started teaching at St. Olaf in the fall of 1972 and, over the next thirty-seven years, had an enormous impact on the education, careers, and lives of innumerable students, the college’s biology program, study abroad opportunities, and even campus itself. Besides teaching classes ranging from winter ecology to conservation biology to animal physiology, Gene also created two extraordinary biology-themed study abroad programs: Biology in South India and Environmental Science in Australia. In addition, since the late 1980’s Gene has been on the forefront of the restoration efforts of campus land to their original natural habitat, including hardwood forest, tall-grass prairie, and wetland ecosystems. His massive efforts earned him the position of St. Olaf’s first ever Curator of Natural Lands in 2002, and to date, almost three hundred acres on the St. Olaf Natural Lands have been restored.
Since Gene’s retirement in the spring of 2009, he has kept as busy as ever. He remains extremely active on the maintenance and expansion of the St. Olaf Natural Lands and has been working on planting trees, tilling the prairie cross country trails, burning the prairie, building deer exclosures, and fighting the never ending war with invasive species, as well as many other projects. Gene still keeps his office in Regents Hall, where he is more than willing to meet with students and discuss future plans, questions, and concerns. When he isn’t on campus, Gene has enjoyed having extra time to hunt and to visit his three grandchildren.
Gene describes his time at St. Olaf as “the job of his dreams” and has mentioned repeatedly how lucky he feels to have been part of such a great community. In my mind, however, it was we, the students of St. Olaf, who were lucky to have known and benefited from this wonderful man— whether as a professor, a boss, a research advisor, or a friend. Throughout his time at St. Olaf, Gene helped countless students appreciate the value and intricacies of the natural world, an undertaking for which I, and I’m sure innumerable others, are immensely grateful.
By Natasha Seliski '12
During a recent presentation at her Alma Mater, Dr. Helen Piwnica-Worms reminisced about entering St. Olaf College in 1975 wanting to pursue a career as a teacher. At that time she could not have imagined the extraordinary, expansive, and fulfilling journey she was about to embark on. Her natural curiosity and desire to touch the lives of people in a meaningful way ultimately led her to a remarkable career in cancer research. A class taught by St. Olaf professor Ted Johnson that introduced her to the world of cancer biology had a particularly profound influence on her career path. After graduating in 1979 from St. Olaf with a B.A., Dr. Piwnica-Worms obtained a Ph.D. in microbiology and immunology from Duke University Medical School. Once she conducted her first successful experiment, she was bitten by the research bug.
Dr. Piwnica-Worms was trained at the Dana-Farber Cancer Institute in Boston and went on to serve on the medical school faculties of Tufts Medical School, Harvard Medical School, and Beth Israel Hospital. Since 1994 she has been a professor of Cell Biology & Physiology and of Internal Medicine at Washington University School of Medicine in Saint Louis. She is also an Investigator of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. On November 5th this distinguished alumna conducted a seminar at St. Olaf summarizing her research on cancer at the cellular level and explaining how her discoveries are being applied to the treatment of metastatic breast cancer. Several students experienced firsthand the lasting inspirational and indeed life-changing impact that dedicated and generous alumni can bring to the campus. Along with a wonderful sense of humor, Dr. Piwnica-Worm displayed a level of passion and energy for her field of study that was palpable and quite contagious. In the decades that ensued since she was an undergraduate on the hill in Northfield, Dr. Piwnica-Worms blazed a trail in pivotal biomedical research and she encouraged Ole students to join her in the challenge and adventure. She is propagating the nurturing that she received and helping St. Olaf students “catch the bug” as only alumni can.
If you are a medical professional or fluent Spanish-speaker, please consider joining current St. Olaf students for a medical brigade to Honduras for the first week of February 2012!
About the Students:
After participating in a medical brigade last year, Bayard Carlson '11, Elizabeth Wanous '11, Adrienne Pompeian '12, and Tye Humphrey '13, were compelled to make the experience available to all St. Olaf students. (More information about their trip.)
When like-minded students heard about their experiences, Oles for Global Health made plans to launch the first annual St. Olaf medical brigade!
About Global Medical Brigades:
Global Medical Brigades develops sustainable health initiatives and provides relief in Honduras, Panama, and Ghana where there is limited access to healthcare. Each year, over 3,000 students and health professionals volunteer to establish mobile medical clinics in under resourced communities. Each of these communities receives a brigade every 3 to 4 months where hundreds of patients are treated and volunteers deliver public health workshops. Between brigades an in-country team maintains relationships with the communities to provide follow-up and conducts community health worker trainings to empower local leaders to perpetuate a consistent level of health care.
Why We Need You!
Health professionals of all kinds and fluent Spanish-speakers are needed to provide medical leadership. Also, pharmaceutical donations (as well as medical supplies, shoes, eyeglasses, and school materials) are very welcome. Please email us for more information about how you can get involved.