January 2012 Archives
Climate change and its impacts on the biosphere have been components of Dr. Juliette Rooney-Varga’s teaching and research programs since she joined UMass Lowell in 1998. However, during the last few years, Rooney-Varga’s perspective has changed, as the vast majority of scientific evidence points to an Earth system that is changing more rapidly than previously thought. It is now clear that we are already feeling the impacts of a changing climate and that those changes are likely to intensify unless society chooses a different path.
Many of us are loathe to learn more about climate change because of “doom-and-gloom fatigue” - how much can one worry about a problem that is as vast and seemingly unstoppable as climate change? Rooney-Varga sees it differently. Climate change is a complex problem with many inter-related causes. There is no ‘silver bullet’ solution, but rather many solutions that are also, frequently, inter-related. Examples include technologies such as solar and wind energy, algal biodiesel, locally grown food, and getting exercise while commuting (burn calories, not carbon!). Solutions even include harvesting electricity from naturally occurring anaerobic bacteria in soils using ‘microbial fuel cells’ (MFCs), in which bacteria transfer electrons to an anode in an electrical circuit, much the same way that we transfer electrons to oxygen during respiration. In fact, recent UML grad, Sara Dunaj, used molecular biology approaches to better understand the microbial communities in MFCs in Rooney-Varga’s lab, in collaboration with Biology Chair, Dr. Mark Hines and Dr. Joe Vallino (Marine Biological Laboratory, Woods Hole MA).
With the help of a $615K grant from NASA’s Global Climate Change Education program, a team lead by Rooney-Varga and including UMass Lowell faculty Craig Slatin, Robert Gamache, Mathew Barlow, and Mitchell Shuldman are bringing climate change science and solutions to UMass Lowell students, high school students, our broader community, and an international online audience. The project “Climate Change Education: Science, Solutions, and Education in an Age of Media” is integrating climate change science with video production by students to create a unique and stimulating approach to global climate change education. Rooney-Varga is also the Director of UML’s Climate Change Initiative, which reaches across the campus and is already changing our local and worldview.
Associate Professor Juliette Rooney-Varga (4th from right), grad student Sara Dunaj (2nd from right) and UML colleagues.
“Principles of Biology,” our Freshman major’s course, is evolving, but it has nothing to do with survival of the fittest! At the helm is Naomi Wernick, one of our newest faculty, who’s goal doesn’t stop with to leaving no student behind, but rather to “intelligently design” the course to maximize learning for all students.
Naomi was an Adjunct Assistant Professor at Bentley University for 4 years before coming to UMass. Unlike most of us who live in (at least) two worlds – teaching and research, which compete for our attention, her teaching methods and goals are actually the heart of her research! She has conducted research concerning the positioning of genomics in biology education, and is a founding member of the KBM Journal of Science Education.Naomi has incorporated active learning tools in the course. Interactive “Clicker” questions are a regular event during class, and she uses online tutorials, videos and interactive exercises for pre-class, extra credit work. Experimental Biology (the lab component) is also under major reconstruction. Last year, her students transformed a gene coding for GFP into bacteria and watched the protein glow under UV when gene expression was activated. They later purified the protein using chromatography... that’s more than many of us could have managed in our senior year Biochemistry lab! The curriculum is being modified to focus on recurrent themes in biology and the labs will be revamped further to incorporate more hands-on multi-day experiments.