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Zombies and Animal Adoption — Thinking Like Scientists

by Kara Matuszewski Sassone

Zombies versus Their Brain Snatchers. Sounds like the title of a Friday night made-for-TV movie. Or maybe a choose your own adventure book. Instead, this is the title of Parvathy Prasad’s poster on display in Curry Student Center during the Inquiries in Biology Poster Symposium.

Prasad, who is a behavioral neuroscience major from Dubai, stands amongst dozens of fellow freshmen explaining their posters and research to students, their professors, and visitors interested in learning more.

Prasad’s research is on a particular type of fungus that acts as a parasite when invading an ant’s body. She explains to the students gathered around her poster that once in the ant’s body the fungus grows and grows until it has taken control of the central nervous system and tells the ant to climb a tree, at which point the ant hangs from a branch for approximately eight weeks. Eventually, she says, a mushroom sprouts from the ant’s head and drops spores of the fungus onto the foraging trails below that other ants use.

Introduction to College-Level Biology

All of this research was done while Prasad was enrolled in Inquiries in Biology – an introductory class for incoming College of Science freshmen who have AP credit for Principles of Biology.

“The Inquiries class exposes students to current, exciting research areas, which motivates and inspires them to push themselves further in science,” said Gail Begley, who teaches in the biology department. “Beyond that, Inquiries helps students strengthen their fundamental understanding of the major concepts underlying all of biology: evolution, information, structure & function, energy & pathways, and systems.  Mastery of these concepts is now the core of our biology curriculum, and Inquiries students get immersed in that right away.”

In Prasad’s class they spent a lot of time discussing evolution. “Why does this fascinate me?” she asks while mulling over her answer. “If we have a headache, we can take one medicine and get better. But how do these ants take care of themselves? Through evolution they’ve learned to make their trails higher so the fungus can’t be dropped and spread through other ants.”

Choosing Topics That Interest Them

Inquiries In BiologyOn the other side of the room, Megan Munkacsy, a marine biology major from New Jersey, is displaying her poster titled, “The Evolution of Adoption.” She looked at research on the adaptive behaviors in animal populations.

She said when it came time to choose a research topic this one interested her because her best friend is adopted, and she was curious how animals adapt to adoption.

“This was the most fun biology class,” said Munkacsy. “It was interesting learning about social aspects.” She is hopeful as she gets further into her major she will be able to continue studying animal adaptation, especially as it pertains to global change, citing specifically marine temperatures and rising sea levels.

Challenging – that’s how Dan Herlihy described his Inquiries in Biology class. “I’ve never taken a class specific to one topic within biology,” he said.

Herlihy, a pre-med student from Hanson, Mass., was standing next to his poster about whether the presence of a certain molecule would increase or decrease anxiety and depression in mice. He said with more studies the research could be beneficial to humans, as it would help curb disruption of circadian rhythms.

Not A Typical Biology Class

“This wasn’t like a typical biology class, it was more focused on stories than a text book with facts,” said Herlihy. “I would have liked more time with it.”

Begley, a teacher in the biology department, says she sees tremendous growth in these students over the semester.

“It’s very rewarding to watch as students start to think like scientists,” she said. “This occurs over the course of the semester as they gain competence in interpreting scientific findings and understanding how research advances occur.  They improve their comprehension and their scientific skills through reading, guided practice, independent research, and peer review.”

Making them even more ready to tackle their next set of courses.

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