Biology at Muhlenberg:

By Jenny McLarin ’86

To say that Muhlenberg’s biology department is having a good year is an understatement akin to “Einstein was a pretty bright guy.” A department that has long been a cornerstone of the nationally recognized science program at Muhlenberg College, biology has had much to celebrate during the 2004-2005 academic year.

One major event this year saw department head Dr. Richard Niesenbaum awarded a $1.05 million, four-year grant by the National Science Foundation. The grant is the largest NSF grant ever awarded to Muhlenberg College, and one of only four awarded nationally through NSF’s “Collaborative Research at Undergraduate Institutions” (CRUI) program. The grant will explore environmental, chemical and genetic bases of variation in plant-insect interactions—or in layman’s terms, why plants of a certain type are eaten in different degrees by insects. What makes it an especially appropriate grant for Muhlenberg is its emphasis on “collaborative”—a perfect one-word description of the biology department’s philosophy.


Dr. Marten Edwards (right), assistant professor of biology, shows the DNA sequencer to Corey Herman ’07.

“We have a real culture of collaboration here at Muhlenberg,” says Niesenbaum, noting that this collaborative spirit includes interaction between students and faculty as well as between faculty members of different departments. In fact, the new NSF grant project provides a perfect example of this mindset. Working with ecologist Niesenbaum on the project will be his departmental colleague, molecular biologist/entomologist Dr. Marten Edwards, and two other science faculty: Dr. Christine Ingersoll in chemistry and the math department’s Dr. Greg Ciccionetti. In addition, nine students will do research for the project this summer.

Tracing the roots of the new NSF grant illustrates just how important a role students play in the research direction of the biology department. In the 2000-2001 academic year, first-year Muhlenberg student Emily Kluger ’04 discovered her “calling” as a botanist and began researching in Niesenbaum’s lab. Her findings concerning variations in insect consumption of the spicebush plant so excited Niesenbaum that he began to focus his lab’s work in that direction. In 2002, he applied for and received an $82,000 NSF grant to fund the “Herbivory Uncertainty Principle” project, which he has been working on with Ingersoll. “Interest in plant/insect interaction has become really high here,” says Niesenbaum, “in large part because of Emily pushing the research agenda.” (See sidebar article on page 25 for more information about Emily Kluger.) Last year, as Class of ’32 Research Fellow, Niesenbaum was searching for funding sources and learned about the NSF’s CRUI program. He based his proposal on the research project in which Kluger had played a key role…and learned this year that he would receive the grant!

Although the connection of a student’s research to a million-dollar grant makes an exciting story, one part of Emily Kluger’s experience is not at all unusual: first-year students often are afforded exceptional research opportunities at Muhlenberg. “My philosophy is to bring students into the lab early on,” says Niesenbaum. “They can do the work! And starting early allows them to devote significant time to a research project.” Also, with graduate schools seeking, and often requiring, extensive undergraduate research, this type of preparation is invaluable for students planning on graduate study.

 

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