From the Dean's Desk -- November 29, 2012

Biology Professor and Alumna Use Bird Research to Teach Math

Biology faculty member Christine Small and 2012 biology alumna Kiersten Newtoff redesigned an existing and largely observation-based ecology lab to allow students to learn about the scientific method and the role of math and statistics in biology by conducting original research. 

Traditionally, says Small and Newtoff, undergraduate biology students were taught quantitative skills in separate math and statistics courses.  This redesigned course brings together math, statistics and biology in an environment where students are immersed in science using observations of bird form and function. Data collected on wild bird feeding behaviors is used to introduce hypothesis testing and applied statistics and to emphasize the critical role of quantitative thinking.

Small and Newtoff’s article “Integrating quantitative skills in introductory ecology: Investigations of wild bird feeding preferences” will be published in in the April 2013 edition of the journal The American Biology Teacher.  This will be a part of the special emphasis issue Mathematical Application in Learning Biology.

This work was supported by a grant from the National Science Foundation Transforming Undergraduate Education in Science, Technology, Engineering and Mathematics program for the collaborative proposal between the mathematics and statistics department and the biology department called “SUMS4BIO: Strengthening Undergraduate Mathematics and Statistics Education for Biologists.”


Ioffe Receives Grant for Geopolitical Study of Belarus


Ioffe interviews Lukashenka for his book about the president of Belarus.

Geospatial science professor Grigory Ioffe received a $19,882 university grant for his proposal “The Republic of Belarus: Geopolitical Leanings and the Phenomenon of Lukashenka.”  Ioffe has studied and written about Belarus and its president, Alexander Lukashenka, whom Ioffe interviewed twice in the summer of 2011 for his upcoming book about the president.  This study will investigate the national identity of the country’s people.

 “Belarusians who live between Russia and the European Union have a weak national identity. In other words, they are not certain who they are,” says Ioffe.  He says that there seems to be a cultural divide within the country, since its west may lean more to Europe while its east to Russia.  Ioffe’s project would test the existence of that divide on the basis of national survey results.  These results will be examined based on regions.  Ioffe will also examine the popularity of Lukashenka.

“Belarus is ruled by a man who is described – in the West – as a dictator. Yet, this dictator used to be genuinely popular in Belarus and continues to be popular, although not as much as before. Using the same surveys, the spatial pattern of his popularity will be researched. In other words, is he liked everywhere or, for example, less in the west than in the east, in which case his popularity correlates with the same cultural divide,” says Ioffe.
Ioffe will use this preliminary research to apply for national and international grants to continue his study of Belarus.

Biology Alumna and Autism Advocate Shares Stories with the World

Liz Becker, who earned her Bachelor of Science degree in biology in 1998 and her Master of Science in education in 2000 from Radford University, is known for her stories.  She is called upon by autism advocacy groups every year to tell her story about her son Matt, who was diagnosed with autism in 1988.

 “The diagnosis of autism was a rare one back in 1988 - only 1 in 10,000 was affected.  Then the numbers grew … and people began to notice,” says Becker.  She went from trying to explain autism to those Matt met each year, to really promoting autism awareness through her stories, speaking engagements and her blog.

“We officially reached 2.5 million people on Sunday, September 30, 2012,” she says.  The blog visitors come from more than 70 countries around the world. Recently, she was interviewed by “Autism-Live” and “Everyday Autism Miracles” – resources for parents of children with autism.

When Matt was diagnosed with moderate / severe autism, Becker knew of no other parent with a child with autism.  “Raising a child with autism is a very different experience and without help, resources, or someone to bounce ideas off of only made it harder,” says Becker.  At the time, doctors advised Becker to "put Matt in a home" because he would be too much of a burden on me and my family.  “Instead of institutionalizing Matt, we took him back to our home where he progressed in tiny steps every year. Now this well-educated, talented young man shows just how ill-informed the medical community was about autism. Matt has overcome almost every one of the classically autistic behaviors and is an inspiration to those in the early years of autism,” says Becker.



Tonight, Dr. Beth McClellan will be our second faculty guest speaker during our normal meeting time.

The CSAT STEM Club would like to thank everyone who participated in our game nights on November 13 and 15. We hope that everyone had a lot of fun before the break.

On December 6, our last meeting of the semester,  the club will be discussing some Spring Trip options and planning activities for the Spring semester.

We hope everyone had a great Thanksgiving.  We hope to see you at our meetings and activities during the rest of the semester.

Jasmine Jackson
CSAT STEM Club Secretary