The Inside Scoop on Swarthmore Biology

Hi friends! It’s Iris, your resident biology blogger, this time with an inside scoop on the Swat bio scene. I commonly get asked these questions by my friends from other colleges, my parents and their colleagues, my non-bio friends at Swat, and my younger brother, so I thought I’d put together a little FAQ about what studying biology is like at Swarthmore!

How did you decide to be a biology major?

In my freshman fall I took Bio 1, which was an introduction to Cellular & Molecular Biology. We learned much more than the general overview that high school biology classes (even Advanced Placement) provide, and I loved the support that the department gives its students. For both introductory biology classes, you have four professors who lecture on material of their specialty during the semester, one of whom usually doubles as a lab instructor. Then, there’s also an additional lab instructor and students who help as lab teaching assistants, Writing Associates who guide you through your lab reports, and Science Associates who hold study sessions twice a week if you’re stuck on a concept. I found all these people to be incredible resources during this challenging semester of bio!

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Also, I really love animals, so that had something to fuel my interest in biology, too!

What’s really great is that everyone in the department always gets so excited and their eyes light up when someone asks a really challenging and unanswerable question about biology. It makes me want to learn everything there is to know about why humans, animals, and plants have gotten to be the way they are now. Why can salamanders regenerate their limbs but we can’t? How do our right and left legs grow to be the same length? Will we ever cure cancer?  I don’t know, but some scientists have theories, and in ten or twenty years after experimentation and evidence-gathering, we really might have the answers to those questions. But in the meantime, I’m majoring in bio not because it’s easy (because it isn’t) and not because I have to (because I don’t), but rather because I think it lays out a very refined and experimental approach to answering questions that have a significant impact on our everyday lives.

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Contemplating pea plants, pipettes, and the millions of unsolved questions in biology.

What are your favorite biology classes?

Not surprisingly, some of my favorite classes that I’ve taken at Swarthmore are here in the Biology Department! That being said, I have to make a disclaimer: the majority of the classes that I’ve taken throughout my three years here are, as a matter of fact, not in Biology. I have studied here for five semesters (I spent one semester studying in Denmark), which means that I’ve taken roughly 20 classes at Swarthmore. Of those, only four classes have been in Biology. My favorite class has been Evolution which I took last year with Professor Vince Formica! I’m tremendously excited to take his Molecular Ecology seminar next year!

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What kinds of things do you do in lab? 

We move stuff. We lose stuff. We find stuff. Essentially, that is what we as biologists do when we experiment. We ask a lot of “why” and “what if?” questions about the structure, anatomy, function, origin, and evolution of life and different organisms, which leads to controlled studies that might help us answer the questions we have in mind.

For example, for one of our Organismal & Population Biology labs, we did a mink dissection to identify and learn about the internal organs as well as the external anatomy. When I took Evolution, we did labs out in the field, which means that you go out and collect and analyze the data from populations of plants or microbes, for example. This semester in Developmental Biology, we looked at the tracheal systems of Drosophila (fruit flies) to see whether various mutations would cause differences in the branching of terminal cells which are lit up in green fluorescence below.

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Can I do research with my professors?

Definitely! A lot of students who major in bio also end up doing research for a semester, a summer, or longer with one of their professors. But that’s not always the case. You can just talk to a professor and see what kind of openings they have in the lab. I wanted to do something with “small bio,” which are the Group 1 classes that make up Cell & Molecular Biology: Cell Biology, Genetics, Omics, and Microbiology. This is different than “big bio”, which are the Group 3 classes that make up Population Biology: Evolution, Animal Behavior, Marine Biology, Conservation Biology, and Ecology. We also have Group 2 classes that fall in the middle within Organismal Biology: Developmental Biology, Plant Biology, Neurobiology, Animal Physiology, and Invertebrate Biology.

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The under-appreciated beauty of invertebrates (: Fun fact: the orange pigment seen is given off by the algae symbionts that are hosted by the sea anemone!

For two summers and two semesters, I did research with Professor Elizabeth Vallen on a “small bio” project. We were interested in the symbiotic relationship between sea anemones and their algae, and how their symbioses affect the coral reef ecosystem and the biodiversity of other living species. Not much is known about this relationship, so our research (along with the research of Liz’s past students) has been paving the ground for discovering the cellular and molecular mechanisms underlying how these anemones host their algal companions. In particular, I experimented with ways to disrupt the anemone mesoglea, which is an extracellular matrix layer found in between the outer ectoderm and inner gastroderm. After establishing initial methods and protocols, we were able to stain for various proteins in the mesoglea and, as a result, we found that even disrupting a crucial protein called collagen had no effect on the migration of algae through the sea anemone’s body! These results are tentative and will continue to be explored through more experiments, but it is interesting how biologists can use the tools of disruption to figure out how cellular components function normally in an organism.

What fun things do biologists do?

We love field trips! If you imagine a Magic School Bus type adventure, then that partially describes some of the field trips I’ve taken. During the semester that I TA’d for Bio 2, we went on a tour of Longwood Gardens which is one of the most beautiful botanical gardens in the U.S.! Aside from that, students doing research over the summer also organize field trips or potluck dinners which were fun. In May, the Department always holds a picnic where we recognize the seniors and award-winners, and enjoy the spring sun with good food!

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The Greenhouse at Longwood Gardens!

I’ve found that being a biology major doesn’t just mean studying the science – in fact, the way we think about a lot of concepts applies to how we think about life, people’s health, and your daily habits. We might think about biology and how it intersects with science education, or how biology overlaps with psychology, or how biology contributes to our everyday knowledge of the plants and animals around us! In every way, Swarthmore biology has taught me the skills that I can apply to other disciplines. Perhaps most importantly, it has taught me to keep asking questions about the world and to stay curious since there are always more things to discover.

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