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By Gerry Boyle '78
For a year, Larkspur Morton crashed through remote Peruvian jungles from morning until night, her eyes trained on a roving band of squirrel monkeys that skipped through the trees overhead. Morton was studying "alimaternal" behavior, the scientific term for what is essentially babysitting. She found that in the wild, juvenile squirrel monkeys take care of their younger brothers and sisters, allowing mom a foraging break. This was new scientific ground that Morton, then a doctoral candidate at the University of California-Davis, was breaking in Peru. She's doing the same in her current research with her research partner, biologist Neal Taylor, observing similar behavior in gray jays, a north woods cousin of the blue jay. "Instead of crashing through the jungle, we're snowshoeing after gray jays in the field," Morton said.
And Colby is reaping the benefits.
Morton is a National Science Foundation AIRE (Award for Integration of Research and Education) Fellow, one of four who have brought their scientific research skills to Colby and shared them with faculty and students. The National Science Foundation gave Colby $500,000 in 1998 to pay for the project, which was a major coup for the College. Only 10 small liberal arts schools in the country were awarded the grant, and only one other in New England (Wellesley). "It really recognized the support the College has provided the sciences," said F. Russell Cole, Oak Professor of Biological Sciences.
Bringing Morton and the other AIRE fellowsPhilip Nyhus, interdisciplinary studies; Steve Theberge, chemistry; Andrew Kortyna, physicsto Colby reflects the College's goal of involving more and more students in real research, according to Dean of Faculty Edward Yeterian. It also reflects a commitment to "discovery-based learning," in which knowledge and experience are gained as students set out to answer their own scientific inquiries, often crisscrossing what were once rigid boundaries between disciplines. In other words, it isn't your father's science education. It isn't even Larkspur Morton's. When she was an undergraduate at Hamline University in St. Paul, Minn., very few students did research, Morton said: "The focus is changing in these small liberal arts colleges."
Consider Nyhus, a soft-spoken scientist who has done extensive work in the ongoing effort to save the endangered Sumatran tiger. Nyhus grew up in Indonesia and emerged as one of the players in a movement to reexamine the way we look at conservation problems such as endangered species. In the case of the tiger, Nyhus spent more than a year in the Sumatran wilds and never even saw a Sumatran tiger. "That's alright with me," he said, recalling the dense jungle terrain. "If you're close enough to see a tiger [in Sumatra], it's time to be concerned."
Nyhus and others did see that the best way to save endangered species is to consider the problem from all angles and disciplines. As an expert in the use of Geographic Information System (GIS) technology, a computerized technology that develops models using layers of information, Nyhus undertook the first comprehensive analysis of potential Sumatran tiger habitat. Enlisted in the effort was Patrick Sullivan '00, who did a year-long independent study related to the project.
But Nyhus, like the other AIRE fellows, brought more to Colby than his own research. His knowledge of GIS has been applied to Colby's curriculum, including the course Problems in Environmental Science, taught by David Firmage. Over the last year, Nyhus has helped Colby amass the latest in GIS technology, including ArcView and ArcInfo software. That technology has been used in a study of water quality of Wesserunsett Lake in Skowhegan in which high-risk erosion areas in the lake's watershed have been identified and predicted. "Students are doing real research," Nyhus said. "They're finding new information, new ways to use very sophisticated high-end software that is really world-class, and producing professional-quality outputs and reports."
This is the kind of research that once was reserved for graduate students at major research institutions. Even students with field research experience elsewhere, like Phoebe Lehmann '01, who studied mountain lions with a University of Connecticut team, are unlikely to have had access to state-of-the-art research software such as she uses at Colby. "You don't get to do this dynamic modeling [at most colleges]," Lehmann said.
The AIRE fellows are at Colby for one or two years. Kortyna and Theberge have moved on. Morton and Nyhus will leave in June. But the program is expected to have a long legacy. The GIS lab is fully equipped (with some $50,000 worth of software Nyhus gleaned from software companies) and ready to go. Morton has developed and taught (with Catherine Bevier, Clare Booth Luce Assistant Professor of Biology) a biodiversity course for non-biology majors. She and other AIRE fellows developed and improved lab projects and also organized a workshop in which Colby faculty of all disciplines, from physics to philosophy, shared their approaches to teaching. "This is the perfect job for me because I'm interested in education and improving approaches to education," Morton said.
Science at Colby, like the world's understanding of squirrel monkeys, will never be quite the same.
The Colby Difference: The Inauguration of William D. Adams
Nuclear Fiction: Daniel Traister '63 Delves Into the Fiction of World War II
The Hot Zone and the Cold War: Frank Malinoski '76 Investigates Biological Warfare
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