October 2012 Volume 11 Issue 2


Independent Study Courses in the Biology Department

Beating the Buckthorn

Considering Graduate School? Take Some Advice from Ole Alums

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Independent Study Courses in the Biology Department
Leah Stinson ’16Students seeking an opportunity to research and study a subject of their choice and build relationships with professors need look no further than the Hill. Though the biology department offers a vast range of courses, St. Olaf students majoring in biology are allowed to further explore their interests by doing an independent study (IS) course. Sophomores, juniors, and seniors may propose a topic to a professor for an IS course, which can take place throughout either semester or interim. Professors have advised students on a variety of IS topics, from cardiophysiology to membrane biology to global forestation patterns. Some IS courses are done in student groups of two or three, and the academic product(s) of the IS can be varied.One student, Noelle Wolf ’13, chose to study epigenetics last spring with Jean Porterfield. This IS course allowed Noelle the opportunity to incorporate two of her passions–biology and art. Like all IS courses in the biology department, Noelle collaborated with her advisor to select, discuss, and apply her reading materials. One way in which Noelle’s IS was unique was the final project: a children’s book. In this book, The Forgetful Disease, Noelle explained Alzheimer’s disease in comprehensible terms and illustrated relevant epigenetic mechanisms (see sample plates from her book below). 

Though professors advise independent courses like IS courses on their own time, above and beyond their regular duties, they are still usually very willing to work with students in this way. Last year, 18 students were able to create their own IS course within the biology department, preceded by 17 students in the 2011-2012 school year. This being said, professors don’t always have the time available for independent study courses, so students should not absolutely depend on this opportunity. But faculty can’t say “yes” if students don’t ask!

Students interested in pursuing an IS course should start by sending an email to a potential IS advisor to see if that professor has the time, and if so, the interest in the proposed IS topic. The student and professor then work together to define the IS course goals and assignments. Official registration for the course often happens as late as the first week of the term in which the course is taken, and involves turning in a completed form to the Registrar’s Office (seehttp://stolaf.edu/catalog/1213/academicregs/course-reg.html#ISIR for details).


Beating the Buckthorn
By Kirsten Maier ’13On two Friday afternoons during the month of October, if you were to take a ramble in the Natural Lands, you may have happened across a large group of people tromping around in the forest north of the Baseball Pond. Upon closer inspection, you would have seen they had orange weed wrenches in hand, and piles of plant debris were being made next to the trail or in the bed of a pickup truck. What’s going on, you might have thought, and had you asked, these people would have cheerfully responded, “Buckthorn pull!”But what is buckthorn? European (or common) and glossy buckthorn are two hearty trees that are considered invasive species in Minnesota and throughout the Midwest. Buckthorn was first brought over from Europe as a common decorative shrub, but rapidly invaded many natural ecosystems including Minnesota’s deciduous forests. In 1999, Minnesota declared it a “noxious weed” and outlawed its sale and distribution. However, the plant continues to spread and remains a problem in many areas of the state.
The key to buckthorn’s success at invading wooded areas is its leaf cycle. In the spring, buckthorn leaves grow before those of most other trees, and in the fall, the leaves drop much later. This dense layer of long-lived leaves effectively shades out other plants from growing anywhere nearby. In addition to shading, buckthorn also outcompetes native plants for nutrients and moisture, making it an undesirable plant in our forest understory because it reduces the amount and biodiversity of native vegetation. Once buckthorn is established, it is difficult to eradicate. Birds love to eat (and therefore spread) its berries, and seeds stay viable in the soil for up to five years. Even after an area has been cleared, buckthorn can pop up again. Keeping it under control takes many vigilant volunteers who are willing to work long hours pulling it out of the ground. Luckily at St. Olaf we have a wonderful volunteer base – you!Buckthorn is not the only invasive plant you can see around campus and in the natural lands. Reed canary grass grows pervasively near the wetlands, and garlic mustard can be found in the woods behind President Andersen’s house and next to the baseball pond. Wild parsnip, another noxious weed, can be found in the Carleton Arboretum, but fortunately hasn’t been seen invading the St. Olaf campus yet. We’re on the lookout for it because it is a common invasive in Southeastern Minnesota and is especially nasty considering its sap can cause devastating skin burns when exposed to the sun.

While there aren’t any more planned buckthorn pulls this fall, don’t forget that it’s a problem. Keep your eyes and ears open – come spring, we’ll be back out there with our weed wrenches, saving the woodlands from that beautiful but bothersome plant called buckthorn.


Considering Graduate School? Take Some Advice from Ole Alums
By Andrew Kaul ’13What are your plans after college? If you don’t know the answer to this question, it’s okay; you’re not alone. It is not an easy decision for most Oles to make, and there are many good answers. After graduating, some of us will go right to the work force; some will get a Fulbright or some other scholarship and study all around the world. Some will join the Peace Corps, Teach for America, Green Corps, or some other volunteer network, and many will choose to continue their education in a Masters or Doctorate Program in graduate school. Some Ole alums currently in a graduate program were interviewed and here offer some advice for choosing and applying to grad school.

  • Hal Halvorson ’11 is currently at The University of Arkansas studying stream macroinvertebrates using ecological stoichiometry
  • Rachel Wieme ’12 is in the NSPIRE (Nitrogen Systems: Policy-Oriented Integrated Research and Education) program at Washington State University
  • Sam Dunn ’11 is at Colorado State University studying the interactions between soil microbes and alpine plants using stable isotope analysis
  • Jon Lambert ’11 is studying gene exchange in a rapidly speciating complex of Hawaiian crickets at Cornell University
  • Kameko Halfmann ’10 is researching intertemporal choice and temporal discounting in older adults using functional neuroimaging at the University of Iowa

Do I take a gap year?
When asked about how many of their peers take a gap before graduate school or not, most responded that about half of their friends/peers went straight to grad school after graduating from St. Olaf and about half of their peers in graduate school took time off after undergrad, so either route you choose, you’ll be in good company. Hal advises, “For students feeling ‘burnt out’, I would recommend a gap year.  For students who get excited at the thought of going deeper and have a pretty strong inclination of what field they could potentially devote their lifetimes to, I’d say go for it.” Despite having gone straight to graduate school, Jon encourages a gap year if you have something specific in mind, reassuring that, “there are plenty of people (at least in my program), that took years off and are doing fine in grad school.” Should you choose this route, Kameko suggests you make your gap count. In her words, “If you feel you need a break or a gap year, make it productive – work in a lab as a research assistant and start to develop a strong CV.”

How do I choose the right graduate school?
A sentiment echoed in all five responses was the importance of choosing the right advisor. If you find your advisor’s research interesting, and he or she communicates well with and cares about you, then you are much more likely to have a positive experience and be more successful in your graduate program. If you are trying to narrow down potential advisors, Sam says, “talk to people in the lab, their colleagues, staff, etc…they will most often give you their unbiased opinion.” Hal further encourages getting to know these people, stating, “Your lab mates are the people who help you through tough days and are there for you to bounce ideas off of, so I would emphasize meeting the graduate students in any lab you end up joining.” Additionally, Hal cautions against being attracted to Ivy league schools for the wrong reasons, and instead he and others mention considering which schools you are most likely to enjoy attending. Think about the cities your schools are located in. Do you want to live there for 2-6 years? Will this program offer you intellectual freedom? Which school will most facilitate your growth as a person? Is there funding for your research or are teaching assistantships available? Sam warns, “If you’re not getting paid to go to grad school, you should be.”

If you don’t have any idea what schools you might be interested in, Jon recommends looking through the biology websites of multiple schools and perusing faculty pages looking for research topics that interest you. Contact professors that you might want to work with, telling them about yourself and inquiring if they are taking on advisees. In his experience, “Some professors will respond negatively, or not at all, but some will be positive, and you could start a meaningful conversation that gives you a leg up in the application process.”

How do I prepare for graduate school? How can I make my application stand out?
Rachel summarizes a recommendation of all 5 alumni, “One of the best things you can do is to get research experience while you are an undergraduate. This helps your resume stand out among others as you begin contacting potential advisors or labs.”  More specifically, Kameko and Jon recommend getting research experience at St. Olaf early on through a summer or Independent research program, so that you can apply for research at another institution later in undergrad in order to diversify your experiences. Sam says that if at all possible, “present your research at a national conference as a poster.” This will be a great learning opportunity and will set you apart in applications.

When applying for a graduate program, consider your strengths and unique experiences and be sure to highlight these in your essays and interviews. Jon also recommends that you emphasize having a liberal arts education, further explaining that, “If you think that some aspect of your liberal arts education has uniquely prepared you for being a scientist, talk about it!” Jon double majored in biology and philosophy and thinks that his background in a social science set him apart from other applicants. While crafting essays, Kameko suggests you tailor each application and make it unique, “Make each application specific to the program for which you are applying and ask for help from St. Olaf faculty with writing personal statements.” There is a wealth of information and advice that resides in the heads of all the biology professors at St. Olaf, but they can’t share it unless you ask!

What is the best part of graduate school?
According to Sam, the best part is getting paid to do what he loves, and to have so much flexibility in his schedule. To make his point clear, Sam explains, “As I write this I am working from home on a Wednesday morning at 10:30 a.m. … in my PJs.” He also explains that he probably enjoys more freedom than most grad students, so you shouldn’t go in expecting this to be the norm. Jon also expresses enjoying the freedom his program provides, but for him it is the academic freedom to continue an existing project, or start any new project he desires. He puts simply, “It’s pretty exciting to carve out a niche that’s all your own, and pursue answering the questions that interest you.” Hal shares in this sentiment and further expounds that; “the best part of being a graduate student is having the opportunity to contribute to your field in an original and potentially profound way. […] Having this intellectual freedom is incredibly liberating and motivating.” For Kameko, the most enjoyable aspect of her time as a graduate student has been teaching and working as a Teaching Assistant, which she describes as “a blast.” There are a great variety of positive experiences to be had as a graduate student, and it seems each student has their own favorite part. What will yours be?