Biology Seminars 2020-2021

This academic year all Biology Seminars are happening on Zoom, as Zoom Webinars, followed by a Q&A session. This allowed us to invite speakers from afar, including lots of Bard alums, which is definitely a silver lining for these weird times!

Speakers for the Spring 2021 semester:

  • Audrey Russel ’20, Isa Jones  – who both just finished their senior projects in December 2020
  • Prof. Tom Cech, Nobel Prize Laureate, University of Colorado Boulder
  • Molly McQuillan ’17, Brown University
  • Dr. Min Kyung Shinn ’14, Washington University in St. Louis
  • Dr. Caroline Bartman, Princeton U
  • Shailab Shrestha ’16, Tufts
  • Dr. Marta Shocket ’09, University of California, Los Angeles
  • Dr. David George Haskell, author of “The Forest Unseen”; Sewanee University
  • Dr. Carlita Favero, Ursinus College
  • Dr. Sully Fernandez, The Janssen Pharmaceutical Company of Johnson & Johnson
  • Liz Miller ’18, University of Hawaii at Manoa
  • sprojjes (tbc)

Speakers that we had the honor to host in the fall of 2020:

  • Georgia Doing ’15, Dartmouth
  • Nadia Russel ’20, Addie Finch ’20, Eli McClatchy ’20, Gabby Hartman ’20, who finished their senior project in May 2020
  • Silas Busch ’16, U Chicago
  • Dr. Erica Perez, Xavier U of Louisiana
  • Dr. Parris Humphrey ’06, Harvard U
  • Prof. Manu Prakash, Stanford
  • Dr. Sara Andreotti, University of Stellenbosch
  • Emma Kelsick ’17, AmeriCorps
  • Prof. Scott Loss, U Oklahoma
  • Prof. Mary Lou Guerinot, Dartmouth
  • Dr. Melanie McReynolds, Princeton U
  • Dr. Daniel Gonzales, Purdue

Lots of exciting news from the Keesing Lab

There were lots of exciting news in the Keesing Lab in 2020. Professor Felicia Keesing coauthored a whole sequence of papers, including “Species that can make us ill thrive in human habitats” that was published in Nature; “Spatial and temporal patterns of the emerging tick-borne pathogen Borrelia miyamotoi in blacklegged ticks (Ixodes scapularis) in New York” in a journal “Parasites & Vectors”, and a paper “A new genetic approach to distinguish strains of Anaplasma phagocytophilum that appear not to cause human disease,” in a journal named Ticks and Tick-borne Diseases.

In September 2020 professor Keesing was also the featured
scientist on BBC One documentary “Extinction: The Facts with David Attenborough”. Her statements as an expert were included in articles published in The Guardian, The Scientist, Smithsonian Magazine, Canada’s National Observer, and Inside Higher Ed.

Links to press-releases:

Prof. Dueker on Citizen Science and Environmental Justice

Citizen science sees a boom in participation by people motivated by cuts of environmental protections and Covid-19 impacts on data gathering and justice.

“There isn’t enough environmental monitoring to begin with, and it will only decrease,” said Eli Dueker, a professor of environmental and urban studies at Bard College. “So what we end up with is community scientists often working with research scientists to fill that gap. And that can be really effective because it allows communities to know the pollution hot spots with both air and water.”

Full text:

Perron Lab: New genome announcement

Several new genome sequences of Bacillus subtilis and Bacillus velezensis strains were published by the Perron lab. These beneficial bacteria are important for making of many traditional fermented foods, and these strains in particular were isolated from samples of Kimchee cabbage.

Two Perron lab alums, Tejaswee Neupane, and Rachael Mendoza, are coauthors on this paper, as most of the work was done by them as a part of their senior projects!

Full text:

Citation: Perron, G. G., Neupane, T., & Mendoza, R. A. (2020). Draft Genome Sequences of Bacillus subtilis Strains TNC1 (2019), TNC3 (2019), and TNW1 (2019), as Well as Bacillus velezensis Strains TNC2 (2019) and TNW2 (2019), Isolated from Cabbage Kimchee. Microbiology Resource Announcements, 9(23).

Image source: WIkipedia

We (temporarily) switched to remote instruction

To minimize the impact of the Covid-19 pandemic, the faculty in the Bard Biology program switched to remote instruction as of March 16m 2020, and until the end of the Spring semester. We are running advising sessions by teleconference, and will handle moderations and senior projects remotely.

For those of you who have recently been admitted to begin studying at Bard in Fall 2020, congratulations! We know that this is a strange time, and that your decisions about college are especially challenging this year. We are happy to speak with you, to connect you with students, and to share some of our remote instruction if any of that would helpful to you in the coming weeks. We would love to have you join our community in the fall!

(Image sources: tapestry, style transform, virus)

Robertson lab: polarized light and bird-building collisions

Migratory birds facing a number of hazards during their journeys. Collisions with buildings have become a major conservation problem for them, but the exact reason why so many birds collide with buildings is unclear. Several studies suggest that birds are attracted to nighttime building lighting. Bruce Robertson helped discover a new kind of light pollution, polarized light pollution, that could also be responsible. The light that reflects from glass buildings gets polarized, which may cause it to look like a water body at a distance, instead of a large dangerous object approaching fast. This collaboration between Bruce Robertson at Bard College and Sirena Lao and Scott Loss at the University of Oklahoma asked whether polarized, or unpolarized light pollution was more strongly associated with bird collisions with buildings in downtown Minneapolis. We found that birds were most likely to collide with individual windows that were lit at night, but that there was little evidence that polarized light pollution was attracting birds. This suggests that turning out the lights in each room of office buildings can help migratory birds avoid collisions.

Lao, S., Robertson, B.A., Anderson, A.W., Blair, R.B., Eckles, J.W., Turner, R.J. and Loss, S.R., 2020. The influence of artificial night at night and polarized light on bird-building collisions. Biological Conservation, 241, p.108358.

Biology Seminar Spring 2020

  • 1/30 Introduction
  • 2/6 Wendy Turner, SUNY-Albany. Anthrax Transmission in
    Herbivorous African Wildlife
  • 2/13 Shari Wiseman, Nature Neuroscience. Perspectives on Scientific Publishing
  • 2/20 Felicia Keesing Bard College, Biology Program. The Ecology of an African Savanna
  • 2/27 Krista Caballero, Bard College, Experimental Humanities Program. Birding the Future
  • 3/5 Michael Gitlin, Hunter College. Carriers of Meaning: Some Research Threads in The Night Visitors, a film about moths by Michael Gitlin
  • ——— All in-person seminars below this point are cancelled because of the coronavirus pandemics. We will update this page once we have a better plan. Stay tuned!
  • 3/12 Samantha Monier ‘12, CUNY. Changing Climate and the Winter Seabird Community of South Georgia
  • 3/19 Megan Gall, Vassar College. Hear, Here? The What and Where of Northern Saw-whet Owl Auditory Processing
  • 4/2 Rachit Neupane ‘13, MIT. BMI1 is a Context-dependent Tumor Suppressor that is a Barrier to Dedifferentiation in Non-small Cell Lung Adenocarcinoma
  • 4/9 Min Shinn ‘14, Washington University-St. Louis. Allosteric Effect of Single-stranded DNA Binding Proteins (SSB) C-terminal Tails on E. coli RecO Binding to DNA
  • 4/16 Erika Crispo, Pace University. Adaptive States versus Evolutionary Processes: A Meta-Analysis Contrasting Conservation Approaches
  • 4/23 Colin Aitken, Vassar College. Investigating the Mechanism of Translation Initiation on the Ribosome and Across the Transcriptome
  • 5/7 Student talks (TBC)

Keesing lab: a mathematical model for livestock management

Biology professor Felicia Keesing and her colleagues published a paper in Scientific Reports that describes a mathematical model that can be used to manage livestock on grazing lands around the world. While previous models to manage livestock grazing exist, they require a lot of data and those data are hard to collect, making the models less useful. Keesing’s team developed a model that requires very little data yet makes sophisticated predictions, including estimating how much grass would be left over to support wild grazers. The model successfully predicted grass abundance at the team’s field sites in Kenya.

Biology seminar: Fall 2019

Biology seminars are happening every Thursday, at 12 pm, in RKC 103 (the biggest auditorium, aka Bito auditorium)

The plan for this semester:

  • 9/12 – Quanita Kendrick, ’17. In The Interim: Navigating the Field Post- Graduation
  • 9/19 – Jeremy Kirchman, SUNY-Albany. The Evergreen archipelago: Ecology and Evolution of Birds at the Edge of the Boreal Forest
  • 9/26 – Wyatt Shell, ’10, University of New Hampshire. Opportunities Beyond Undergrad: The Evolution of Research Potential
  • 10/3 – Alexis Gambis, ’03. If Butterflies Could Speak!
  • 10/10 – Michael Hood, Amherst College. Disease at the Edge of Species Distributions: Anther-smut Fungi of Wild Carnations
  • 10/17 – Sonya Auer, Williams College. Energetic Mechanisms for Coping with Environmental Change
  • 10/24 – Shari Wiseman, Associate Editor at Nature Neuroscience. Perspectives on Scientific Publishing
  • 10/31 – Rick Relyea, RPI. The Jefferson Project: Integrating Science and Technology for Enduring Lake Protection
  • 11/7 – Paula Checchi, Marist College. DNA Repair: Why Do We Care?
  • 11/14 – Felicia Keesing, Bard College. How to Plan a Meaningful Summer
  • 11/21 – Daryl Lamson, NY Dept. of Health. Special Case Investigations in Virology: Finding the Unexpected
  • 12/5 – Senior Project Talks (tbc)

Khakhalin lab: Intrinsic temporal tuning in the tectum

A new paper from the Khakhalin lab:

Intrinsic temporal tuning of neurons in the optic tectum is shaped by multisensory experience
Silas E. Busch and Arseny S. Khakhalin
5 SEP 2019

(The published version is behind a paywall, but you can find a free version here:

In his senior project, which eventually became the foundation for the paper, Silas Busch ’16 asked whether different neurons in the optic tectum of Xenopus tadpoles are tuned to inputs of different duration. Now, there’s lots to unpack in this sentence! So let’s talk about it bit by bit. Silas worked with tadpoles: the larvae of Xenopus frogs (you might have seen these frogs: they look a bit like underwater rubber toys, and are popular as pets). Even though tadpoles are small, they still have a brain, and in this brain, they have a part called “the optic tectum”. This brain area helps tadpoles to navigate in the water. As everything else in the body, the brain is made of cells, and these cells, called neurons, are connected to each other in some meaningful fashion that, frankly, we still don’t completely understand. Neurons send electrochemical impulses to each other, and it is this dance of activation in the tectum that allows tadpoles to swim without running head-first into walls or other tadpoles.

The question that Silas asked in his paper, is whether tectal neurons are different from each other in one very specific way. He looked at whether they all respond similarly to fast and slow patterns of activation, arriving from other neurons, or whether some of them have a preference for either fast or slow activation profiles. Say, if a neuron receives signals from 3 other neurons at the same time, will it respond to them in the same way as it would respond if these signals were a tiny bit staggered? To answer this question, Silas used a fancy technique called the “Dynamic clamp” that allowed him to connect to neurons one by one with a tiny glass electrode, and then control electrical currents in each neuron with a computer, simulating different patterns of activation.

What Silas found is that most tectal neurons do have a preference for either short or long (synchronous or asynchronous) patterns of activation, and that this preference changes depending on what tadpoles see and hear. It means that the tadpole brain as a whole, and each individual neuron in this brain on its own, adjust to changes in the world around the animal; presumably, to give the tadpole an ability to better navigate and survive. This particular type of neuron-by-neuron temporal tuning was not described in the tectum before, and also nobody yet used the dynamic clamp technique to look for tuning of this type. We don’t yet know exactly what these findings could mean for our understanding of the brain, but it is very exciting to learn that there is one more aspect to brain develpoment, that was so far somewhat overlooked!

It is also curious to think that this paper would not have happened if Silas hadn’t returned to the lab to work for 4 extra days immediately after graduation, on a Sunday after his commencement ceremony! In April 2016, as he was writing his senior project, Silas realized that some of the data he recorded could not be used. Even though he was obviously tired, and excited to graduate and leave Bard, Silas still decided to spend four more (!) full days in a lab without windows (our lab just happens to not have windows), to finish the work. It is not that often that you can point at one seemingly minor decision and realize that it was a key for success, but for this paper, it is really true. Without these four extra days of work, we would not have had enough data, and this paper would have never happened.