Findings on zebra finches open biology seminar series

On Feb. 12, Professor Jennifer Grindstaff presented her research about the effects of antigen factors on the development of neonatal zebra finches for the Biology Department lecture series. Photo courtesy of Vassar College
On Feb. 12, Professor Jennifer Grindstaff presented her research about the effects of antigen factors on the development of neonatal zebra finches for the Biology Department lecture series. Photo courtesy of Vassar College
On Feb. 12, Professor Jennifer Grindstaff presented her research about the effects of antigen factors on the development of neonatal zebra finches for the Biology Department lecture series. Photo courtesy of Vassar College

On Saturday Feb. 12, the Vassar Biology De­partment held the first talk of the Spring Semester Biology Seminar Series. This semes­ter, the Seminar Series consists of five lectures conducted every Friday at noon in Olmsted 266 by guest professors from various universi­ties around the country. Associate Professor of Biology at Oklahoma State University Jennifer Grindstaff specializes in Behavioral Ecology and Evolutionary Biology.

At Friday’s lecture, she discussed her scientif­ic studies of the effects of early life environment on behavior and physiology using zebra finches. Specifically, Grindstaff researched the effects of exposure to antigens of mother finches on the offspring’s immune responses during a neonatal period. She posed the question, if a mother finch was exposed to antigens during the neonatal pe­riod, would that ultimately benefit or harm the offspring, in terms of their antibody count and active immunity capabilities? She concluded that this research shows the impact of early exposure to antigens can create long-term sex-based devel­opment issues depending on what kind of adult environment the finches move into later in life.

Assistant Professor of Biology and faculty sponsor for the lecture Kelli A. Duncan com­mented in an emailed statement, “Biologists like Dr. Grindstaff and myself are constantly interest­ed in how changes in the environment alter basic physiological features of an animal.” She contin­ued, “How an organism adapts to its environment (both other animals in the environment and other abiotic factors such as nutrient availability, dis­ease, weather, and even noise) is important to that animals survival and animals make conscious and unconscious decisions to enhance that survival.”

The lecture offered students an opportunity to experience what professors are doing when they are not in class. Deanna Havey ’18 noted the biology lectures can also be more interesting than traditional lectures. She said in an emailed statement, “[The biology seminars] offer variety. It’s not a 10 A.M. lecture you must attend three times a week following a vague syllabus. [Seminar lecturers] provide more in-depth discussions at a different angle of particular topics that otherwise won’t be covered in 100 or 200 level lectures.”

Mariah Caballero ’19 echoed Havey’s interest. She said, “Just being able to hear about what’s happening in science now is definitely helpful.” She continued, “I’m in Biology 106 so it’s not like my level of knowledge is incredibly high, but she did a great job explaining her processes such that anyone could have enjoyed that lecture.” While the content of the material has many words that are used in purely scientific contexts, this semi­nar and others in the series adapt the content to the audience instead of expecting a high degree of understanding in the subject.

Duncan also noted that Grindstaff’s research was valuable because of its relevance to humans. Duncan wrote, “By studying non-human species we are able to learn a great deal about both ba­sic biological principles and about human devel­opment. The basis of biomedical research is that non-human model organisms such as rodents, birds, fruit flies, fish, worms are all great models for human development and by studying these animals in-depth we are able to ask and hopefully answer questions that we are unable to answer in humans.” Assistant Professor of Biology Megan Gall seconded Duncan’s analysis. She wrote in an emailed statement, “Animal models are very powerful because we choose species that are trac­table (i.e. are easy to keep, reach adulthood in a relatively short period of time, etc.). Studying one non-human animal species tells us only about how things work in that animal. However, study­ing lots of different species can give us an idea of the general processes at work and how these processes are influenced by life history, ecolo­gy, or other factors. If clear patterns emerge [in studying lots of different species], this can give us an insight into how humans may function as well (since we are also animals).”

D’Angelo Mori ’19 commented, “I was amazed at how much research they had done. When I first looked at the title of the seminar I thought it sounded like a pretty simple experiment, but it turns out it was very intricate.” Mori held that there are benefits of having professors from oth­er colleges beyond what professors at Vassar can offer. Caballero said, “I never experienced research to that degree—my researching is very simplistic compared to theirs. It is also good to support other people’s research, as they’ve put so much money and time into it. I believe anybody researching for college or grad school needs to be a well-rounded person. I feel like education and research and anything with that has to do with a desire to learn and a desire for higher knowledge.”

Beyond just providing students an opportuni­ty to learn interesting information about biology, the lectures are designed to offer students more and varied points of view. In that vein, Duncan ex­pressed, “[Exposing students to other scientists] not only increases our students’ exposure to bi­ological questions not represented on the Vassar campus, but also gives students an opportunity for another type of academic engagement with the information.” Duncan and Gall both said that outside research can help to connect professors interested in similar fields and to facilitate collab­oration or further develop their understanding.

Duncan also noted, “Having a scientist come and discuss their work is just like what a student would experience from a novelist coming to campus to do a reading or to discuss their most recent article/book. When you read a scientific paper, students and faculty often have questions or want further clarification on certain points or the meaning of that work.”

The next few weeks of lectures will have professors coming from Fordham University, Rockefeller University, Eisai Research Institute and Swarthmore College covering a variety of re­search topics.

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