Biology News

In Fond Memory of the Rev. Dr. Albert J. Smith

Thoughts by Dr. Rodney Scott

Dr. Al SmithThe Rev. Dr. Albert J. Smith was a wonderful teacher, an insightful biologist, and a servant of God who lived out the Wheaton College motto “for Christ and his Kingdom”. On February 10th, 2021, at the age of 88, Dr. Smith passed away, but the marks he left on the Biology Department of Wheaton College will endure.

Dr. Smith was an alumnus of Wheaton College, who came to the institution as a student with the intention of training to enter the mission field. Though he later attended Northern Baptist Theological Seminary and pastored church for several years, he fell in love with the study of Biology while attending Wheaton. It was also during this time, that he fell in love with his sweetheart Audrey, who would later become his dear wife. After graduating from Wheaton, Al obtained a master’s degree in Ecology from Northern Illinois University and went on to teach Biology at nearby Judson College from 1964-1967. In 1967, he returned to Wheaton College, where he taught Biology for 32 years. In the early days of his teaching career at Wheaton, he received a grant from the National Science Foundation that helped him to earn a PhD from the University of Chicago.

During his 32 years at Wheaton, Al Smith Helped to expand the beloved Black Hills program, and even helped to build some of the buildings on the Black Hills campus. He taught all kinds of classes from Botany, to Bioethics, and from introductory Biology to the Senior Capstone course. But I remember him most for the course that became his specialty, Genetics. Al wasn’t trained as a geneticist, but I’m sure none of his students realized that, as he taught them the details of the field with enthusiasm and insight. However, as the field of Genetics became more and more technical with new discoveries in the late 1980s, Al recommended that the Department hire someone with specific training in genetics to teach the course. And that’s how I got my job at Wheaton.

Coming straight to Wheaton from my graduate work and having earned my PhD studying the genetics of a fairly obscure plant, I was excited about my new position, but more than a little nervous about taking on the role of the Wheaton College geneticist. I was also more than a little nervous about being the young upstart who would take over Al’s beloved genetics course. But I didn’t need to worry, Al was one of my most gracious supporters. He even co-taught the course with me in the early days, helping me to “learn the ropes”. Looking back, I see that teaching others how to teach was just part of who Al was. I know that many of my colleagues experienced similar encouragement and mentoring from Al, and scores of students over the years gained similar inspiration from him. For many years, Al taught the “Science for Teachers” course and observed student teachers from our department when they had teaching internships in the community. He also modeled a practice that continues in our department to the present time of giving our Teaching Assistants the opportunity to present pre-lab mini lectures from time to time. Given that some of these students have gone on to careers in academia, Al’s legacy as a teacher of teachers continues to have a far-reaching impact.

Al not only helped me and others to become better teachers, he also taught us by example quite a bit about what it means to integrate science and faith into our teaching. As part of his passion for the study of bioethics, he introduced me to the details of the American Eugenics movement, a time in the history of our nation when genetics was used to justify evil actions that opposed the truth that all humans are made in the image of God. He also modeled ways of carefully working with both Biology Majors and non-majors to sort out questions about evolution. He was one of the founding faculty members who established the popular, multi-disciplinary course “Theories of Origins” in the mid-1990s. He also modeled what it meant to be a “pastor-teacher”, mentoring students outside of the classroom, and frequently praying for and with them in all kinds of settings. He was often our go-to person in the Biology Department for sharing an inspiring sermonette during a departmental chapel, and his willingness to do such things eventually helped others of us to take up that challenge as well. Finally, all of us who worked with him remember hearing his strong sweet voice leading his students at the start of a class session in singing his favorite hymn “This is my Father’s World”. This hymn so warmly remembered by those of us who were his colleagues and by countless students from years past, speaks volumes about who Al was. He dearly loved both the natural world that God made and its creator, and he did everything he could to encourage the same feelings in those around him.


New Hampshire State Epidemiologist Dr. Benjamin Chan ’02 Biology Alumnus shared his experiences facing COVID-19 in the U.S.

Dr. Ben Chan Biology AlumnusDr. Benjamin Chan ’02 works full-time at the New Hampshire Department of Health and Human Services as the State Epidemiologist, where he’s been employed since 2014. As the State Epidemiologist in New Hampshire, Ben applies his medical and epidemiology expertise in working with local, state, and national organizations, including the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), to address population health needs in the state. continue reading...

Luke Gentry, Junior Biology Major, Gets Honorable Mention for Summer Research Poster

Summer ResearcherIn the summer of 2020, I conducted research, along with Dr. Nadine Rorem, in an open field South of the Meyer Science Center. After the construction of the garden, research was conducted in 6 of the raised garden beds. The bacteria Bacillus app. is known to have plant growth promoting factors through a variety mechanisms. The growth effects were tested on Karisma Sweet Bell Pepper (Capsicum annum) seedlings by inoculating the soil with Bacillus suspended in a liquid solution. Although there was a vast amount of data collected, no significant growth differences were observed among treatment (n=24, p>0.05) and control (n=24, p>0.05) plant groups. However, while not statistically significant, there are some differences in treatment groups worth noting; the treatment group peppers, on average had a larger pepper mass (2-sample-t-test, t=1.156088, d.f.=76, p=0.2512), root mass (2-sample-t-test, t=1.635477, d.f.=46, p=0.1088), and pepper volume (2-sample-t-test, t=1.761863, d.f.=76, p=0.0821). Should the experiment be conducted again, a larger sample size may have aided in obtaining statistically different results, better accounting for variables such as, rainfall, wind, soil pH, and a lack of pathogenic plant bacteria. Great job Luke!


Faith Gilbert, Senior Biology Minor, Wins Third Place in Summer Research Poster Session

Student Researcher with Dr. ThomThis summer I had the opportunity to research and compare two heart rate variability (HRV) software programs. The goal of this study was to assess the agreement between these two programs, Kubios and AcqKnowledge, so as to provide a more clear methodology for the comparability of results between HRV studies. Researching during COVID times presented the unique challenge of researching remotely. However, I was surprised with all that I was able to learn and grow in through remote research and the unique experience it provided me. Additionally Dr. Nate Thom, Biology & Neuroscience Associate Professor had this to add: "Faith took a VERY deep dive into our heart-rate variability (HRV) data and was able to compare/contrast two of the most popular software programs for HRV analysis.  She analyzed ~50 data-sets in both programs, spent countless hours scouring the literature for best-practices for HRV analysis, and also worked closely with tech support for both programs, learning the ins/outs of each program.  I would estimate that we now know more about HRV analysis than 95% of the scientists that work with these programs.  Faith is well on her way to an abstract submission to a national meeting as well as a reliability manuscript.  Faith also learned how to analyze EEG data, and helped others in the lab learn how to analyze HRV data.  Faith is also providing the lab with a tutorial, complete with videos, of the new HRV analysis pipeline that we developed this summer." Great job Faith!


Biology Professor & Ruth Kraft Strohschein Distinguished Chair, Dr. Kristen Page will be presenting three lectures for the Ken & Jean Hansen Lectureship, Marion E. Wade Center

Creation’s Call: Stewardship Lessons from Middle-earth and Narnia 
Kristen Page

Dr. Kristen Page, the Ruth Kraft Strohschein Distinguished Chair & Professor of Biology, will be presenting three lectures using the fictional landscapes of J.R.R. Tolkien and C.S. Lewis as a means to aid us in developing a greater real-life appreciation for God’s creation. Significantly, such an exploration can nurture within us a deeper desire to care for our physical world. The 2020-2021 Hansen Lectureship series title is Creation’s Call: Stewardship Lessons from Middle-earth and Narnia. Due to COVID-19, the Hansen lectures will be given virtually at 7pm Central until Wheaton College deems it is safe to hold public events on campus. 
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Biology Professor Dr. Jovanka Tepavcevic shares how her course “Good in the Great Plagues” became extremely prescient this past spring. 

Dr. Tepavcevic in lab teaches Five years ago when Wheaton College Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Jovanka Tepavcevic proposed a new course called "Good in the Great Plagues," she didn’t know that in 2020 she’d be teaching it during one. Read more here.


Taylor Burton, Biology Major '20, awarded Russell Mixter Award

Taylor Burton, Biology Major and Class of 2020 was awarded the Russell Mixter Award this year. Because of COVID-19, students were sent home during the spring semester which is when our awards are given! Now that the restrictions are gradually lifting, Dr. Ray Lewis presented the Russell Mixter Award to Taylor Burton this summer. Taylor Burton Russell Mixter Awardee 2020

The Russell Mixter Award is given to a junior or senior Biology major with a GPA of 3.5 or above who exhibits the qualities of exemplary character, Christian witness, and academic promise to which faculty, students and other campus personnel should attest. Funds for the Russell Mixter Award was provided by a Wheaton graduate to honor Dr. Russell Mixter, Professor of Zoology at Wheaton from 1928-1979. As Chair of Biology, Dr. Mixter played a significant role in the development of biology at Wheaton College and in the Black Hills. He also was a voice for understanding creation and evolution among the larger community of Christians in science and was a respected member of the Wheaton College community. You can see a picture of him on the mural outside the Stupe, peering through the jaws of a shark. He died in January 2007 at the age of 100 years. The recipients of the Mixter Prize can be seen on the plaque outside the seminar room in the Biology department

Congratulations Taylor!

Wheaton College Biology alumnus Caleb Luk ’17 is on the front lines of fighting the pandemic in Chicagoland.

Caleb Luk ’17 is an emergency room technician in the Chicagoland area. In recent weeks, he has seen hundreds of coronavirus patients from the suburbs, the city, and from nursing homes. Click here for full story.