Augsburg’s commitment to the city and to giving back is never more evident than on City Service Day. Each year, all of the first year students spend four hours working on a service project. As part of this annual event, nearly 60 Biology students and faculty worked to clean up Powderhorn Lake and weed, compost and transplant strawberries at Stone’s Throw Urban Farm.
It is with great sadness that I send news that Professor Emeritus Erwin Mickelberg, passed away May 2. Professor Mickelberg was an Augsburg alumnus (class of 1954), a member of the Augsburg Faculty and the Department of Biology.
Professor Mickelberg began his teaching career at Augsburg College in 1956 and retired in 1994. He received his bachelor’s degree from Augsburg College and his master’s degree from the University of Minnesota.
An avid supporter for a new science building throughout his teaching career at Augsburg, a manuscript of Erwin’s was recently published, and all proceeds will be donated to the College’s campaign for the new Center for Science, Business and Religion.
A funeral is planned for this Friday, May 9, 11:00 a.m. (reviewal at 10:00) at Bethlehem Baptist Church in Minneapolis. An obituary will appear in the Star Tribune on Wednesday and Thursday of this week.
Erwin’s family has requested memorials be made directly to the CSBR campaign, where a fund will be established in his name.
Our thoughts and prayers are with his family and friends.
Each year, Augsburg College celebrates the creativity and scholarship of undergraduate students with its annual Zyzzogeton festival. The festival falls at the end of each academic year and is a culmination of achievement featuring work across departments. Among this year’s presenters were 13 Biology or Biopsychology majors. Continue reading
Tuesday, April 8 was a big day for Augsburg Biology Students.
David Fowler presented his research “Methods and tools for studying heart development and function in Daphnia magna” at the Minnesota State Capitol as part of Minnesota Private College Scholars Day at the Capitol. He is pictured with faculty mentor Matthew Beckman.
In addition, six Biology students had the opportunity to have lunch with Dr. Bonnie Bassler. Dr. Bassler, a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Investigator and Chair and Squibb Professor of the Department of Molecular Biology at Princeton University, was this year’s Sverdrup Visiting Scientist Lecturer.
As part of the college’s Assessment Day, 28 Biology seniors took the ETS Major Field Test in Biology. Nationwide, 488 colleges and universities use this exam. Among the Augsburg students, four scored in the top 8% in the country. Congratulations to David Fowler, Anna Herauf, Anna Weitz and Ian Wunder on your outstanding performance!
Augsburg Presidential Scholar, Michelle Grafelman, was recently awarded the 2014 Vann Fellowship in Biomedical Ethics at The Mayo Clinic. As a summer fellow, she will work with physician and research mentors within Mayo’s Program in Professionalism and Ethics (Associate Director, Regent Paul Mueller) to examine issues such as end-of-life-care, genetic therapies, and patient consent, among others. The competitive applicant pool included students from five colleges in Minnesota, and the junior biology major and math minor was the sole in-state student selected.
Michelle plans to become a physician in the future and has built a solid academic foundation in her three years at Augsburg, earning a 4.0 GPA, participating in the Honors Program, and serving on the Pre-Med Club leadership team. Chosen last summer to be one of ten Sundquist Scholars to conduct STEM research on campus, Michelle is already an accomplished research assistant. Her work in biology, funded by the generous gift of Dean and Amy Sundquist and supervised by Professor Matt Beckman, has helped her develop important research skills within molecular biology and she is continuing this work through an academic-year research grant from Augsburg’s Office of Undergraduate Research and Graduate Opportunity. Michelle has taken advantage of the many opportunities a small campus provides, including leading the flute section in the Augsburg Concert Band and writing communion worship prayers for service each Wednesday. Please join us in congratulating Michelle on her fellowship!
Matt Beckman, an Assistant Professor in Biology, is first author on a paper entitled Stereoselective inhibition of serotonin transporters by antimalarial compounds that was recently published in Neurochemistry International, the journal of cellular and molecular neuroscience. The work began when Dr. Beckman was a Grass Fellow at the Marine Biological Labs in Woods Hole, Massachusetts in 1999, and was completed this fall through a collaboration with Dr. Keith Henry and his colleagues at the University of North Dakota. This paper provides the first detailed description of how antimalarial compounds interact with the serotonin transporter at the molecular level.
On Wednesday, September 25, four biology students presented research at two different events.
Michelle Grafelman presented her poster “The Role of the Hedgehog Gene in Daphnia magna Eye Development” at the University of Minnesota’s Developmental Biology Symposium.
At the North Star STEM Kickoff, Raesean Sneed, along with Biology professor Matthew Beckman were presenters on a undergraduate research panel. In addition, Raesean, Rico Barrozo and Promise Okeke presented posters describing their summer research experiences.
The 2013-14 academic year is now in full swing. Once again, enrollment in Biology courses is strong. More than 300 students are enrolled in biology courses this term, including a record 122 students in BIO 151 (Introductory Biology).
Among the start of the year highlights is City Service Day. Last Tuesday, three Biology faculty and nearly 100 first year Biology students participated in this Augsburg tradition. Students weeded a neighborhood Peace Garden, cleaned up trash at Powderhorn Park and assembled hygiene kits at the Health Commons. Augsburg’s commitment to service and to the city remains strong!
I’m now sitting in the Entebbe airport, waiting for my flight out of the country, back to the US. For my last post, I thought I would say something about the conservation status of chimpanzees in general, and that of chimpanzees at Ngogo in particular. This is an issue I think about often, as I’ve watched the precipitous decline of chimpanzee populations throughout equatorial Africa over the last decade or so that I’ve been studying this species, while at the same time witnessing the fairly dramatic increase in community size and density of my study community at Ngogo. Like virtually all the great apes, chimpanzees are considered endangered – certain populations, or “subspecies”, are considered critically endangered and will likely disappear within my lifetime. The fate of wild chimpanzees will be dictated in the near future by the effects of several interrelated factors: habitat loss (both legal and illegal), bushmeat hunting/poaching, and episodic disease outbreaks. Logging and mining operations have decimated chimpanzee habitats (the species is unlucky to inhabit areas rich in both precious hardwoods and rare minerals), especially since the discovery of oil in several African countries with large chimpanzee populations. While some of my work in the past has shown that low-intensity selective logging can be compatible with chimpanzee conservation, large-scale clear-cutting for commercial timber or mineral extraction certainly cannot. In many African countries in which timber operations have opened up access to forests inhabited by chimpanzees (and other primates), illegal bushmeat hunting, usually through the use of wire snares in which chimpanzees become entangled, has increased dramatically. There is a misperception among many in the western world, however, that the bushmeat “issue” is one that stems primarily from the need for local villagers in areas occupied by chimpanzees and other primates to obtain a steady source of protein. If this were the case, the problem could, in theory, be easily solved by providing alternative sources of protein to these populations. The truth, it turns out, is that the non-sustainable poaching of chimpanzees for bushmeat is largely driven by large commercial markets operating out of large, metropolitan areas, including some in the “developed world” (even the US). A large supply of bushmeat was recently confiscated, for example, at Charles De Gaulle airport in Paris, and not long before that at London’s Heathrow and New York’s JFK airports. The consumption of bushmeat is associated with cultural status in many African cultures, and wherever the diaspora of sub-Saharan African elite culture spreads, whether it be Nairobi or New York, there is likely to be an underground market for bushmeat in those areas. And, as long as that market exists, populations of chimpanzees and other unfortunately easily-caught primates will continue to decline. Finally, the disease issue. This is one that has only relatively recently emerged, largely because many of the diseases that currently decimate chimpanzee populations, primary among them the Ebola virus, only recently began to afflict chimpanzees (and humans, for that matter, who are as susceptible, if not more so, to Ebola as chimps). For as terrifying and dangerous a disease as Ebola is (with upwards of 95% mortality in some cases, it is among the most virulent of all known diseases afflicting primates), we know surprisingly little about it. For example, we think that its primary host is one of a number of species of fruit bat that live in the same forests as chimpanzees (and, in some cases, gorillas), and that apes become infected by using the feeding tree as a bat carrying the virus, but there is not really all that much evidence to strongly support this. What we do know is: 1) the virus is easily transmitted between humans and chimpanzees, primarily through contact with bodily fluids, and 2) once a chimpanzee in a particular population is infected, it spreads extremely rapidly and, as I just mentioned, has a very high mortality rate. Recent Ebola outbreaks have virtually destroyed otherwise thriving chimpanzee populations, for example the previously very large population in the Tai Forest in Côte d’Ivoire in far Western Africa. Ebola is almost single handedly responsible for giving western lowland gorillas the unenviable “Critically Endangered” designation on the IUCN’s Red List of Threatened and Endangered Species. But it is not just the scary, horrifyingly grim pathogens like Ebola that threaten the long-term viability of chimpanzee populations. Seemingly far less insidious diseases, such as simple upper respiratory tract infections, which may have little to no external manifestations in humans, can wreak havoc on a chimpanzee population in which individuals lack immune responses to such infections. In Gombe National Park, for example, where Jane Goodall’s famous study of chimpanzees was first initiated in the early 1960s and continues today, retrospective analysis of major mortality events in the chimpanzee population there showed that there was a very high probability that the deaths were caused by respiratory illnesses spread from humans to chimps. As researchers, we come into fairly close contact with our study animals, and we need to be cognizant of the fact that they can easily become infected by a simple cold virus that we may be carrying, and that such a virus can be much more dangerous to their health than to ours.
All of these factors are working in consort have led to a major decline in wild chimpanzee numbers over the last decade. However, as I mentioned at the beginning of this post, the chimpanzees at my study site, Ngogo, have not only avoided such decline but have positively thrived over this same period. When I first started studying chimpanzees at Ngogo in 2002, there were about 140 chimps there (already more than twice the size of the next largest community anyone knew of). Today there are almost 200, nearly 4 times the size of the next largest known community. This is astounding, considering what is happening to chimpanzees elsewhere. I look at the chimpanzee community at Ngogo with a sense of guarded optimism, however, for its “success” comes with some caveats. The forest at Ngogo has been relatively unaffected by resource extraction in the past, but massive reserves of oil were recently discovered in western Uganda and there is no reason to believe these reserves are not going to be exploited to their fullest extent, and any forest that must be cleared in the process will be considered collateral damage. Chimpanzees at Ngogo have not been directly targeted for bushmeat, largely because of a taboo that exists in the cultures of the local Batoro and Bakiga tribes that surround Kibale National Park against eating primates, but there is evidence that Congolese refugees fleeing civil war in eastern Democratic Republic of Congo have moved into the area east of the Rwenzori Mountains, just outside Kibale, and have started poaching chimpanzees (no such taboo against eating primates exists in these cultures). The chimpanzees at Ngogo have not been affected by any major disease outbreaks in historical times, but Ebola outbreaks have hit several human populations not far outside of Kibale, and there is no reason to think that the virus cannot spread into the park (particularly if people poach and eat chimpanzees).
Given all that, I don’t want to end this blog on a pessimistic note. Despite all these caveats, Ngogo is still the best place on Earth to see and study chimpanzees. There is no other place in the world where you can hike into the forest and see upwards of a hundred chimpanzees in the same area. It is an experience I can’t adequately describe, except to say that I feel privileged to have the opportunity to witness such a scene. I hope you’ve enjoyed reading this blog as much as I’ve enjoyed writing it. I’m always happy to share photos and stories with anyone who’s interested, so once I’m back on campus feel free to track me down. I’ll be the one with the beard that looks like a chimp’s.