Thursday, December 20, 2012

Farewell Clark and Worcester!

Last week, I finished the last of my finals of the semester. I have completed my degree, my career at Clark is now over. College is is feels very strange. My last final was for my evolution class last Friday night. The final was in two parts, the first part being a cumulative exam on the semester's material and the second being a written essay on the value to society that the study of evolution has brought.

As I started on my last paragraph of that essay I began to think to myself how close I was to the very end. A few sentences in and I was excited, I couldn't wait to finish. Here I was, writing the last paragraph for my last exam after over three years of college and what, 16 years of school? I was so close to the end!!! But as I reached the last sentence, the very last one, I almost didn't want to finish it. I didn't want to hand in my exam. I didn't want to walk out of the room where I've taken so many classes and walk out the building. I didn't want to leave Clark forever. I didn't want to leave all of my friends here. I didn't believe I would feel this way, not honestly being the biggest fan of school since perhaps 1995 (yes, I was that kid that pretended to be sick to even miss kindergarten), but I did feel that way. I will miss the learning environment, the familiar setting, and those nights they serve heavenly dirt (an amazing dessert) in the caf for sure, but I felt the way I did because I will miss the people here at Clark who have influenced who I am. I'm very thankful that I had the opportunity to go to school here and have the experience that I did. I look forward to what comes next for me. Now if only I had a better idea of that!

So how about those exams and the end of the semester? In evolution, we concluded the semester by our class debating modern evolution theory with creationism/creation science. The debate was very amusing, and this year the evolution team won (after several years of a creationism winning streak apparently). In forest ecology, our class concluded the semester with project presentations and I submitted my final draft on my paper on the effects of urban forestry on air quality. In my international security course, we ended the semester by evaluating the theories presented in the course to modern worldwide concerns and I submitted my final research paper. In my U.S.-Latin American relations course, I finally finished my 20 page research paper and we presented our papers in class...

And that's a wrap! It was fun writing this blog, and thank you for reading. If you're a prospective student and have questions about Clark, or the biology program, or even just how good that heavenly dirt really is...please feel free to email me at See you at graduation!

Friday, December 7, 2012

Reflecting Back on Some Clark Courses

The Creative Actor - I'd always wanted to take an acting class and I had that opportunity during my first semester at Clark. The course introduced students to acting through weekly dialogues and various exercises. I got to play the role of a very annoying security guard for our final class project in which my partner and I acted out a 10 minute scene. Our teacher gave us the freedom to develop our characters and I took that opportunity by modelling the mannerisms of my character after Brad Pitt's character in the movie Burn After Reading. The class laughed at my character during our scene so I was very happy with the result. And that was my acting career! Hopefully I'll get back into it in the coming years!

Arctic System Science - I took this course to fulfill my major requirements and I very much enjoyed it. Do you know what albedo is? Well you sure will if you take this class! I really enjoyed how the class could blend so many topics together on the region such as climate change, Arctic society and culture, environmental impacts, flora and fauna, hydrology, etc. A few students in my class even had the opportunity to travel to the Arctic (I believe Siberia) the following summer to do research. My end of the year research project focused on the territorial dispute of Hans Island between Canada and Denmark. Hans Island is less than the size of Central Park in New York, yet it is claimed by both countries for potential legal purposes related to oil extraction. You won't be complaining about the Worcester cold after going to this class during a semester and learning about Arctic conditions!

Comparative & Human Anatomy - I took this class back in my "I want to be a doctor/physician assistant" days. You will definitely have to get used to the smell of formaldehyde (which preserved specimens) if you take this class. The class was definitely challenging but instructive. Lots of nights in the lab studying for this course...

Arab Israeli Conflict - One of the topics that I did not previously have much knowledge in before taking this class was the Arab-Israeli Conflict. My professor effectively presented the history of the conflict and crafted the course to question current conditions. Our class had students from all over the world (including the West Bank) and it was very interesting to hear their perspectives on the topic. What made the class so interesting was that so many topics were developing as they were being taught in the course (Syria, Egypt). At the end of the semester, our class was took part in mock negotiations in an attempt to solve the conflict. It's not easy!

Wednesday, December 5, 2012

Week of December 2

In my evolution lab we are preparing for the "Great Debate.” Our class will be split into two groups, with one group representing those supporting the current scientific views on evolution and the other group representing those supporting creationist views on the issue of evolution. We have been assigned literature to study for the debate which will be scored based on substantiated arguments. I am not sure which side I will be assigned to, but it should definitely be interesting. We also have our fourth and last lecture exam of the course in a few days so I'll be busy studying much earlier than usual this week. We received guest lectures on topics such as phylogenetic trees (with an emphasis on fungi) and evolution related to morphology (with an emphasis on reptiles and especially lizards) last week, so the range of material might make it challenging.

I have recently finished my forest ecology paper on how urban forestry can affect the air quality of dense metropolitan areas! I am waiting to receive the draft back for edits, but I am very happy that one of three of my papers is nearly done. There will be student project presentations in class this week and that will conclude the course for the semester.

I have finished my research for my international security and US-Latin American relations papers, so I just have to put the time in to write them! Hopefully I'll be able to put together a draft by the end of the week and then I can meet with my professors to receive any recommendations. I've learned that utilizing professor office hours to review your work before submitting a paper is a great advantage. Can't wait to be done with this week! December always goes by like a blur given how busy things can get...

Tuesday, November 27, 2012

Week of November 25

With most exams and essay assignments completed for my courses, the next few weeks will mostly consist of writing my research papers and studying for finals. I've decided to narrow my focus on my forest ecology paper by studying the impact on air quality in urban areas from urban trees and vegetation. The paper will still focus on New York City examples given the great amount of research that is available. Did you know that planting evergreens is most advantageous to improving air quality in urban environments? This is because evergreens can absorb and intercept pollutants year round compared to deciduous trees.

How about that Stickleback experiment? Well unfortunately, our statistical data failed to support our hypothesis that an introduced predator would result in the adaptation of more robust armor in stickleback. One of our invasive pike introduced lakes did show armor robustness in pelvic spines, but the other did not, and there was evidently no change in dorsal spine lengths between generations. Hey, it happens. Our scope of study was very small and there were numerous environmental factors that could have influenced our data (such as calcium content in the lakes, the presence of trout, and other lake variables). The study did teach me a lot about the impact that an invasive species can have on an environment and the harmful repercussions of introducing non-native species such as pike to aquatic environments. There is one last exam in my evolution course coming up so I'll be very busy studying for that later this week!

Both my international security and U.S.- Latin America relations courses are winding down with research papers due at the end of the term as well. Including today, there are 19 days left until the semester ends and my academic career at Clark comes to an end. This semester has gone by quite fast for me. The past two years at Clark seem very recent to me, but my freshman and sophomore years feel very distant. Time to figure out what to do next right? C'est la vie.

Wednesday, November 21, 2012

Mountain Lions in Massachusetts? They Exist!

Last spring I had the opportunity to work with Dr. John Baker in taking a directed study course focusing on local conservation issues. After a few weeks of reading up on New England fauna in the region I became very interested in studying the potential re-introduction of mountain lions (Puma concolor couguar or "cougars" as they commonly call them in the Eastern U.S.) to Massachusetts. Recent confirmed sightings of mountain lions in the state of Massachusetts have indicated a return of the species once thought to be extinct in the region (although not officially confirmed by state agencies). The species was once abundant in the state and in New England which was once part of its home range.

Mountain lions, also known as cougars, panthers, wildcats, catamounts, and pumas, were believed to be extinct in New England by 1906 and in the eastern U.S. by the 1930’s. This was a direct result of overhunting, habitat loss, and a drastic decline in the white-tailed deer population. Over the last century however, a decline in forestry in the eastern U.S., the abandonment of agricultural lands in the region, and the restocking of the white-tailed deer population have created better suitable habitat for the species. It is not entirely clear if mountain lions sighted in the state have a territorial home range in the region or if they are only western U.S. or Canadian mountain lions that have strayed from their home range. A mountain lion killed in a motor vehicle accident in Connecticut was traced to have originated from as far away as South Dakota (the story can be found here).

The goal of my study was to use spatial data to map suitable habitat areas in the state of Massachusetts in which mountain lions may currently, or may one day persist, and to establish an estimation as to the population of mountain lions that may be sustained in these areas. Using geographic information systems (GIS) software (Clark has great GIS sources by the way!), I was able to map potential suitable habitat meeting certain criteria. I was able to determine that four possible habitat corridors existed in Massachusetts, and recent mountain lion sightings in some of these corridors confirmed their suitability. One of the corridors runs along the Central Massachusetts area, especially near protected lands in the Quabbin Reservoir area....and for some reason there seems to be a lot of mountain lion activity around the University Park area of Worcester...I'm not sure why, but watch out :) . Anyways, if anyone would like to find out more about the study feel free to leave a comment!

Studying Stickleback Fish in Evolution

My lab component of my Evolution course is culminating in a final project involving threespine stickleback fish (Gasterosteus aculeatus aculeatus). A stickleback is a small scaleless fish, and freshwater and ocean variants are found in the northern hemisphere. The Foster/Baker Lab here at Clark University specializes in studying the evolution processes and the life history of threespine stickleback. Freshwater stickleback can adapt rapidly to new environments by evolving advantageous traits, and studying these evolution processes are a great source for research.

My group's task was to formulate and test a hypothesis on whether stickleback developed more robust armor when populations were introduced to predatory fish such as trout and/or pike. The dorsal spines, both pelvic spines, and total body lengths were measured for stickleback from four Alaskan lakes. Two samples were analyzed for each lake, both from an earlier and a more recent generation. Two of these lakes were known to have been introduced to pike in the later generation and the other two were known to not contain pike (as a control)....How do we compare armor sizes? With lots of time spent in lab measuring stickleback of course!

I've heard so much about stickleback research at Clark being a Biology major but I've never worked with them before and the opportunity was very interesting. Our statistical analysis is still ongoing, so we'll have to wait and see for the results!

Thursday, November 8, 2012

Week of November 4th

       Worcester received it's first snowfall of the season (just a few inches) last night and the cold temperatures of late have reminded me that the semester is surely winding down. This week has been quite hectic in terms of getting through assignments, lab work, and studying for exams. I've dedicated the last few days to just studying for my third exam in Evolution. The material is more focused on ecological principles than genetics (lucky for me), so I'm hoping to do well. It can take quite a lot of time to get through all the notes, but I feel much more confident this time around.

       On a random note on something that I learned in Evolution, did you know that female African swallowtail butterflies can mimic near the exact appearance of three other species of butterflies!? Since swallowtail butterflies are tasty to birds, the females mimic the appearance of three species that are distasteful. This in turn increases their rate of survival or fitness (ability for an organism to reproduce). The frequency of the mimicking females is low however, for a high frequency would lead to higher bird predation of the mimicked specie and the mimicking swallowtail. Cool eh? Well I think so.

       My forest ecology lab this week consisted of introducing us to how tree core samples are analyzed in lab (see last week's post). The Geography Department houses their own forest ecology lab where we learned how core samples were sanded into place, scanned, and digitally analyzed using software. Our second and last midterm in forest ecology will be in a few weeks. There has been a great deal of material that has been presented since the last midterm, so I'm thankful that the exam isn't this week.

       This past weekend I was busy writing my fourth of five assignment papers this semester for my U.S.-Latin American Relations course. The essay question and the readings focused on immigration issues and not being someone all that familiar with the immigration debate, it was very interesting to research the causes, consequences, and political policies relating to the issue.

       Let's hope I find time to work on my final research papers this weekend! An early start is never a bad thing when it comes to final papers.