Drs. Helen Michaels (left) and Karen Root at a campus pond used as a teaching site for the new ecology and conservation biology specialization.

Drs. Helen Michaels (left) and Karen Root at a campus pond used as a teaching site for the new ecology and conservation biology specialization.

New biology track prepares students for ecology, conservation work

Students with a passion for the environment and preserving the diversity of life can now follow a course of study at BGSU tailored to their interests. The biological sciences department last fall added a specialization in ecology and conservation (ECB) that will prepare graduates for the growing number of jobs requiring knowledge in both areas.

The curriculum provides a strong foundation in basic biology, genetics, ecology, evolution and conservation biology, with the addition of focused coursework in biodiversity, organismal biology, statistics and geographic information systems (GIS).

The curriculum gives a “unifying foundation that cuts across all organisms, habitats, environments and scales,” and provides a customized path and the proper sequence of classes, said ECB advisor Dr. Karen Root, biology.

“This is really timely,” said biologist Dr. Helen Michaels, lead designer of the program. “There’s a great deal of public support now for conservation and dealing with the environment’s problems. People realize that dealing with problems now will help put us ahead of the curve.” 

“The nature of jobs has changed,” Root added. “There’s a call for this sort of expertise, and entry-level jobs are available with a bachelor’s degree. You’re a lot more competitive having that specialization right on your diploma.” She pointed out that locally, the Environmental Protection Agency is doing targeted hiring, the Great Lakes Initiative sponsored by Rep. Marcy Kaptur (D-Toledo) has provided resources for protecting water quality, and the Toledo Metroparks has changed its focus to large-scale land acquisition to preserve and manage wild spaces. Jobs exist in the private sector, at the federal level, in consulting and with the U.S. Geological Survey as well.

Students who enroll in the ECB specialization tend to be aware of environmental problems and are motivated to help. “There’s a caring and a passion there,” Michaels said, to which Root added, “They’re concerned that nothing’s happening and they want to know what they can do.”

There are currently 12 students in the ECB track, including Rebecca Safron, a senior from North Ridgeville who exemplifies the attitude described by Michaels. “I like to do fieldwork in conservation and restoration of natural spaces and native species,” she said. “We have the ability to make wise and long-term choices to positively or negatively affect the environment. I believe we need to use our knowledge to protect what is most vulnerable.”

An emphasis of the new program is providing field experiences, independent research and internships for students to give them hands-on training in the skills they will need. Safron has had multiple experiences, ranging from assessing areas identified for planned burning in the West to monitoring a major green-turtle nesting site in Costa Rica to tracking diamondback terrapins in brackish-water estuaries in New Jersey.

Michaels and Root are also developing service-learning opportunities for students in such areas as restoration ecology so they may become involved in local issues. “The more we can connect with them, the better scientists they’ll be, and certainly they will be better citizens,” Root said.

The ECB track relates well to the environmental science program in the School of Earth, Environment and Society, say the two biologists. In fact, some students may choose to have an environmental science minor, or vice versa. One of Root’s jobs as advisor is to help students select which is best for them. “There’s a nice synergy there,” she said.

The biology department has about eight tracks that comprise various aspects of the discipline. A basic course for all biology freshmen, Biology Today, features biology faculty in all the specializations talking about what they do, and is aimed at helping students see the possibilities. “The class is a very eye-opening experience. Biology is much more than only pre-med,” Michaels said.

The ECB specialization enables those like Safron, who are ardent supporters of wildlife and natural habitat and keenly aware of the interconnectedness of human, plant and animal life, to prepare for meaningful work.

“It’s important that people understand how their actions are affecting that which is around them,” Safron said. “We are not exempt from the ecological and biological cycles. I think it would be such a boring world if species disappear and we go outside and never hear the peeping frogs or the singing birds. Some people are willing to live with those consequences—I’m not.”

June 2, 2008