Mohegan Tribal Chief Named Eastern’s Commencement Speaker

 Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba, chief of the Mohegan Tribe, will be the Commencement Speaker at Eastern Connecticut State University’s 129th Commencement Exercises on May 21 at the XL Center in Hartford. Malerba will also receive an honorary doctorate degree at the ceremonies.

Malerba has achieved an exemplary career in the health care and tribal governance fields. Not only has she served her community with distinction, she has brought national recognition to the State of Connecticut.

Chief Mutáwi Mutáhash (Many Hearts) Marilynn “Lynn” Malerba became the 18th Chief of the Mohegan Tribe on August 15, 2010, and is the first female chief in the tribe’s modern history. The position is a lifetime appointment made by the tribe’s council of elders. She previously served as chairwoman of the tribal council and was also executive director of health and human services for the tribal government.

Prior to her work for the Mohegan Tribe, Chief Malerba had a distinguished career as a registered nurse and served as director of cardiology and pulmonary services at Lawrence and Memorial Hospital. She earned her Doctor of Nursing Practice degree at Yale University and was named a Jonas Scholar. She holds a master’s degree in Public Administration from the University of Connecticut, and has an honorary doctorate from the University of St. Joseph in West Hartford.

Chief Malerba has achieved a national reputation as an advocate and supporter of health issues and the welfare of Native Peoples. She is chairwoman of the Tribal Self-Governance Advisory Committee of the Federal Indian Health Services; is a member of the U.S. Justice Department’s Tribal Nations Leadership Council; serves on the Tribal Advisory Committee for the National Institute of Health; is a member of the U.S. Treasury Department’s Tribal Advisory Committee; and serves as a technical expert on the Commission for Environmental Cooperation. She also serves as the United South and Eastern Tribes board of directors secretary, and is a member of the board of directors for the Ms. Foundation for Women.

In Connecticut, Chief Malerba serves as a trustee for Chelsea Groton Bank, as a board member for the Community Foundation of Eastern Connecticut, as an advisory committee member for the Harvard University Native American Program and served on the board of directors for Lawrence Memorial Hospital for 11 years.

More than 1,200 undergraduate and graduate students will receive their diplomas at Eastern’s graduation exercises on May 21, with an audience of more than 10,000 family and friends expected. In addition to Malerba, dignitaries expected to attend include Eastern President Elsa Núñez; Mark Ojakian, president of the Connecticut State Colleges and Universities System; and Merle Harris, vice-chair of the Board of Regents for Higher Education.

Written by Ed Osborn

Kurt Lucin Explains How Alzheimer’s Disease Might Progress

On April 3, Kurt Lucin, assistant professor of biology, continued the Faculty Scholars Forum with a discussion on Alzheimer’s Disease (AD), a debilitating neurological disease that affects a growing number of elderly people.

A comparison of a normal healthy brain and a brain with Alzheimer’s disease (AD). Severe degeneration and neuron loss can be observed in the AD brain, which appears shriveled and smaller in size.

Lucin says AD is characterized by a progressive loss of cells in the brain and a concomitant decline in cognitive function.

Shown are astrocyte cells that have internalized (phagocytosed) 6μm latex beads. Arrows indicate the phagocytosed beads.

“These impairments are associated with the appearance of amyloid plaques and neurofibrillary tangles within the brain.”

Shown are two astrocyte cells, one of which has internalized (i.e., phagocytosed) 6μm latex beads. Both astrocyte cells fluoresce green and the beads fluoresce red.

Lucin said previous studies indicate that AD is accompanied by reduced levels of the protein beclin 1 within diseased regions of the brain. Beclin 1 is involved in numerous processes, including a cellular degradation process, called autophagy, and the trafficking of recognition molecules called receptors.

A microscopic view of a human Alzheimer’s disease brain. Shown in brown are amyloid beta plaques, which are characteristic of the disease and accumulate as the disease progresses.

“My research is interested in understanding the consequences of reduced beclin 1 on disease progression,” said Lucin. “We are particularly interested in understanding how reduced beclin 1 may affect the function of astrocytes. Astrocytes are the most numerous cell in the brain, provide neuronal support, and are capable of internalizing and degrading amyloid plaques via a process called phagocytosis.”

By Dwight Bachman

Annual CREATE Conference to Showcase Student Art, Research

 

WILLIMANTIC, CT (04/08/2019) Eastern Connecticut State University will host its premier academic and artistic conference of the year on April 12. CREATE – Celebrating Research Excellence and Artistic Talent at Eastern – will take place from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. in the Student Center and surrounding venues. An award ceremony with remarks by Eastern President Elsa Núñez will take place at 12:30 p.m. in the Betty R. Tipton Room of the Student Center.

Hundreds of student researchers, artists and performers will present their talents at CREATE. Students from all majors will lead oral and poster presentations, participate in panel discussions, showcase music and dance performances, exhibit their art and photography, and present documentary films and more.

Registration will take place at 8 a.m. at the Student Center Café. President Núñez will present two undergraduate awards and two mentor awards to outstanding students and faculty members at the 12:30 p.m. award ceremony.

For more information, visit http://www.easternct.edu/create/, where you can view the day’s agenda and download the event’s cell phone app for iPhone and Android.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Biology Students Study in Deserts of the Southwest

Eastern students walk through a massive salt flat in Badwater Basin, Death Valley National Park.

A group of Eastern students recently returned from the American Southwest after studying desert ecology in a global field course (GFC) with the biology department. The trip took place from March 9–17 and was supervised by Professors Brett Mattingly and Matthew Graham.

Students conduct vegetation surveys in the Mojave Desert.

The course was an introduction to the study of desert ecology and biogeography. In the Mojave and Sonoran desert systems, students examined how environmental factors and biotic interactions shape the diversity and distribution of arid-adapted plant and animal communities from local to ecoregional scales. They evaluated how these communities are assembled over ecological and geological timescales.

Students executed plant surveys and set up arachnid traps under various light treatments. Four different species of scorpions and a camel spider were collected for analysis, as Graham is in the process of studying camel spiders with a major grant from the National Science Foundation.

Weather conditions such as wind, rain, snow and sand storms impacted data gathering. “The weather was a lot colder than we expected, so we saw less reptiles and invertebrates than other classes, unfortunately,” said Margalit Kaufman ‘19. “The plant life was plentiful, however, so we were still able to do research on biodiversity, especially that of vegetation.”

Though they were not able to collect many camel spiders for analysis, Alexsis Powell ‘20 noted that the trip was not any less hands-on. “It was still fun learning how to set up the traps,” she added. “At first, I was upset that I would not get the traditional ‘desert experience,’ but as the week went on, I was grateful that it was not extremely hot, because that would have made the long hikes more difficult.”

Ashley Dupuis ’19 continued: “The environment exposed me to a set of community diversity in which I was not accustomed to.” The students utilized an online platform called iNaturalist, which is a social network composed of naturalists, citizen scientists and biologists that shares and maps observations of biodiversity across the globe.

The most memorable part of the GFC for Powell was searching for scorpions. “It was awesome being able to see animals that you can’t find here in Connecticut.” The trip made her realize how much she enjoys doing fieldwork.

Kaufman and Dupuis cited visiting Death Valley in Eastern California as their favorite part of the trip, appreciating the ecosystem and natural beauty they encountered. Moreover, Dupuis valued spending time disconnected from “artificial” human reality.

“Packing up your house and carrying it on your back every day is a surreal feeling,” she said. “I gained peace of mind on this trip that solidified my feelings to become a field biologist, no matter how competitive.” She is considering graduate school for the future and wants to continue doing desert research out West.

Kaufman also plans to attend graduate school, in pursuit of evolutionary biology. “This course will have been helpful in terms of understanding comparative anatomy and ecology, evolutionary adaptations in desert species and paleontology.”

The GFC programs at Eastern serve a growing population of students and aim to reinforce a global and liberal arts focus to professional preparation.

“I believe the field experience I gained will help me stand out and convince someone to take a chance on me, leading me toward a successful career,” concluded Dupuis.

Written by Jordan Corey

Annual CREATE Conference to Showcase Student Art, Research

Eastern Connecticut State University will host its premier academic and artistic conference of the year on April 12. CREATE – Celebrating Research Excellence and Artistic Talent at Eastern – will take place from 8:30 a.m.-5 p.m. in the Student Center and surrounding venues. An award ceremony with remarks by Eastern President Elsa Núñez will take place at 12:30 p.m. in the Betty R. Tipton Room of the Student Center.

Students present research during the poster session of the 2018 CREATE conference.

Hundreds of student researchers, artists and performers will present their talents at CREATE. Students from all majors will lead oral and poster presentations, participate in panel discussions, showcase music and dance performances, exhibit their art and photography, and present documentary films and more.

Registration will take place at 8 a.m. at the Student Center Café. President Núñez will present two undergraduate awards and two mentor awards to outstanding students and faculty members at the 12:30 p.m. award ceremony.

For more information, visit http://www.easternct.edu/create/, where you can view the day’s agenda and download the event’s cell phone app for iPhone and Android.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Students Combat Antibiotic-Resistance Crisis via ‘Tiny Earth’

Students in Bio 334 test bacteria for antibiotic properties.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Connecticut State University is joining the push to mitigate one of the world’s most critical public health crises: antibiotic resistance. Through a new opportunity in the Biology Department, Eastern students are tapping into the Tiny Earth network, an international crowdsourcing effort that engages young scientists in the search for new antibiotic medicines.

The United Nations has named antibiotic resistance a global priority. Antibiotics are used to treat bacterial infections such as pneumonia. The problem? As antibiotics are misused – and new ones are slowly discovered – harmful bacteria develop resistances against them, rendering the medications ineffective.

Through Bio 334 (General Microbiology), Eastern students have joined scientists worldwide in the pursuit of new antibiotics by examining microorganisms found in soil. Why soil? Many of the most commonly prescribed antibiotics were discovered from “dirt,” including penicillin and vancomycin.

Students in Bio 334 test bacteria for antibiotic properties.

“Our supply of effective antibiotics is dwindling, leaving people susceptible to extended illness and even death as a result of seemingly simple bacterial infections,” wrote Biology Professors Barbara Murdoch and Jonathan Hulvey, leaders of Eastern’s antibiotic resistance efforts. “Of even more concern is that only a few new classes of antibiotics have been created since the 1970s, and many pharmaceutical companies have abandoned the search for new antibiotics because of dwindling profit margins and long timelines for FDA approval.”

Eastern’s laboratory findings, and those of the thousands of other students tapped into the network, are sent to Tiny Earth headquarters at the University of Wisconsin. There are more than 200 schools across the United States and 14 countries participating in Tiny Earth — hence the “student-sourcing.”

“I feel as though we are a part of the fight against antibiotic resistance,” said Max Walter ’19, a biology major enrolled in Bio 334. “There are already reemerging pathogenic outbreaks happening around the world, such as tuberculosis.”

Classmate Katlyn Little ’19 echoed, “There’s a purpose to what we’re doing. It’s not an arbitrary lab to learn skills. There’s real importance behind it.”

A goal of the project is to get young people excited about science while training them in important molecular techniques. Research has shown that students who engage in authentic research experiences are more likely to pursue and persist in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM) fields.

“A big part of this program is having students take ownership over their own research project,” said Hulvey, who is leading Bio 334. “The fact that it’s connected to this global effort makes it all the better.”

Jonathan Hulvey teaches in his General Microbiology course (Bio 334), which has a laboratory component connected to Tiny Earth.

“What I like best about the lab is that we are allowed a lot of freedom,” said Molly Corvello ’18, a biology major enrolled Bio 334. “We get to decide what bacteria to test and which pathogens to test against. We’re doing actual lab work and there’s real mystery involved. This isn’t a ‘cookie-cut’ lab where the outcome is already known. It’s pretty exciting to think that the bacteria we find may be used in the future of medicine.”

Murdoch has led students through this research via independent study for the past several years. “We’re not telling the students what to do,” she said of the Tiny Earth approach. “We tell them the project and teach the skills they’ll need. They do genetic analysis and bioinformatics. They can take it as far as they want and apply these skills to other areas of science.”

Eastern students have gone to Church Farm, an Eastern property in rural Ashford, to collect soil samples. Collections have come from wetland areas, loamy soils and sandy soils. This experimentation and comparison of soil types is part of each student’s individual project.

When they return to the lab, they isolate bacteria from the soil; test the bacteria to see if they deter the growth of other bacteria, which indicates the possible presence of antibiotics; and then test to find the identity of the deterrent bacteria.

A student in Bio 334.

“In addition to testing bacterial colonies for the production of potentially significant antibiotic molecules, we must conduct additional tests to determine what species we are actually studying,” said biology and mathematics double-major Stefanos Stravoravdis ’20. “In doing such, this experiment acquires an interesting element of discovery ordinarily absent when conducting stock lab procedures with anticipated results.”

Hulvey added, “As their projects develop, they gain new skills. They’re learning how to analyze DNA sequences or how to carry out biochemical tests for identifying bacteria. These are skills that students would hope to learn in any microbiology class, but we’re putting it in the context of this semester-long project.”

Another goal of the project is to increase awareness of the antibiotic resistance crisis. Eastern is collaborating with local schools, such as Ellis Technical High School in Danielson, which are helping to collect soil samples. “This is an avenue to educate the public and to pique the interest of high school students,” said Hulvey.

Murdoch originally brought the student-sourcing approach of Tiny Earth to Eastern in 2013, piloting it via independent study projects.

“I wanted to link my research to a larger global problem,” said Murdoch, “and to enhance the critical thinking, research and communication skills of our students, as well as provide them with outreach opportunities to communicate the antibiotic crisis to audiences beyond Eastern. I’m thrilled that Tiny Earth is finally being delivered in a classroom setting, under the direction of Dr. Hulvey.”

Hulvey has been engaged in a similar vein of research for the past eight years, testing antimicrobial resistance in fungi.

“Dr. Murdoch introduced me to Tiny Earth, which I immediately saw as a tremendous opportunity to immerse students in the world of microbiology and in a way that benefits society,” he said. “Her enthusiasm, along with that of other Tiny Earth folks, is contagious and I’m seeing this semester that my students have also caught the antibiotic-discovery bug!”

For more information, contact Hulvey and Murdoch at hulveyj@easternct.edu and murdochb@easternct.edu, or visit the Tiny Earth website at https://tinyearth.wisc.edu/.

Biology Students Named ASPB Scholar, Present in Texas

Roshani Budhathoki and her research mentor Biology Professor Vijaykumar Veerappan.

Written by Raven Dillon

Roshani Budhathoki ’19 and Jacob Dayton ’19 had big Octobers as biology students at Eastern Connecticut State University. Budhathoki was named a 2018-19 ASPB-Conviron Scholar by the American Society of Plant Biologists (ASPB), and Dayton presented research in Texas at Rice University’s Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium.

Budhathoki was one of 43 scholars selected from a pool of more than 200 applicants. ASPB is the professional society for plant biologists and Conviron is a partnering company that manufactures plant-growth chambers.

Within the realm of biology, Budhathoki focuses on plant science and breeding. She is inspired to pursue plant breeding because of the possibility of improving agriculture and food production, especially in developing countries. Budhathoki has given oral presentations at several professional conferences, including the ASPB-Northeast Section Meeting and the Eastern Colleges Science Conference, receiving best oral-presentation awards at both conferences. She was also the recipient of an ASPB undergraduate research fellowship this past summer.

ASPB-Conviron scholars receive a one-year membership in the ASPB, virtual mentoring and résumé review sessions with established plant science professionals, and the opportunity to submit an article to the ASPB blog for editorial feedback and support, with the possibility of publication.

As an undergraduate at Eastern, Jacob Dayton has conducted research at the Jackson Laboratory.

On Oct. 6 at Rice University in Houston, TX, Dayton presented at the Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium. The annual symposium features several hundred speakers in disciplines that span topics from engineering to natural science.

Dayton’s oral presentation, titled “Metapopulation Connectivity Mitigates Permanent Loss of Historical Genetic Diversity in a Federally Endangered Seabird,” concerns the federally endangered seabird known as the Roseate Tern. His findings show increasing genetic diversity among the terns. Dayton’s research mentor at Eastern is Biology Professor Patricia Szczys, with whom he has studied terns throughout his undergraduate career. 

The Gulf Coast Undergraduate Research Symposium gives undergraduate students an opportunity to gain presentation experience and to meet peers at other institutions from around the world. Students submit an abstract and present for 10-12 minutes about their research and receive feedback from Rice faculty and graduate students.

Eastern Receives Major NSF Grant to Study Camel Spiders

The camel spiders being studied at Eastern are preserved in ethanol. This specimen, held by Biology Professor Matthew Graham, has a large chelicerae — jaw-like appendage used for catching food.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern Connecticut State University is the recipient of a major grant from the National Science Foundation (NSF) to fund research on a little-known type of arachnid known as the camel spider. Led by Biology Professor Matthew Graham, the grant will total more than $500,000 over the course of four years in an effort that will develop young scientists and contribute to the understanding of climate change in deserts.

The project is a collaboration between Graham’s lab at Eastern, the Denver Museum of Nature and Science and the University of Colorado. With more than $1 million in NSF funding split between the Connecticut- and Colorado-based teams, the project represents cutting-edge research that could well make an impact on the global stage.

Camel spiders are actually not spiders at all, but another type of arachnid called solifuges. While they do have eight legs and are in fact arachnids, solifuges don’t have venom or make silk (webs) — unlike their spider relatives. Their most obvious difference, however, is the presence of enlarged chelicerae — ferocious jaw-like appendages — rather than venomous fangs.

Camel spiders do not have 10 legs; the right-most appendages are used for smelling and feeling their environment. Scientists recently found that they also act like suction cups.

Native to deserts and arid habitats throughout the world, camel spiders — also known as sun spiders and wind scorpions — are an understudied taxonomical group, as they are notoriously difficult to find, collect and keep alive in captivity.

Unlike their scorpion relatives, which can survive for months with no food or water, camel spiders have high metabolisms and voracious appetites, and are a challenge to study in a laboratory setting.

One of the NSF’s initiatives is to investigate understudied organisms. Graham and colleagues are tasked with understanding how changing desert landscapes and climates have shaped the evolution of camel spiders. Doing so can help predict how they — and desert ecosystems at large — will respond to global climate change, as well as inform desert-conservation efforts.

“Deserts of the American Southwest are my passion,” said Graham, who is an expert on scorpions. “I’ve been collecting scorpions throughout these deserts and using DNA to learn about their evolutionary history. But scorpions are one piece of the puzzle. Now that we’ve got them somewhat figured out, we can look at other arachnids.”

As the NSF-funded arachnologists study camel spiders, other scientists are beginning to use genomic techniques to look at desert mammals and reptiles. “Together,” said Graham, “we should begin to understand how our desert ecosystems formed, how they have changed, and how they respond to ongoing and future climate change.”

Graham’s team at Eastern will focus on camel spiders of the American Southwest. The team consists of a soon-to-be-hired postdoctoral scholar who will work full time on the project; an REU student from Eastern — REU stands for Research Experience for Undergraduates, which is an intensive NSF research program — and other Eastern undergraduates who are conducting research with Graham for independent study credits.

The second team, led by Paula Cushing and her colleagues at the Denver Museum of Nature and Science, as well as graduate students from the University of Colorado, will focus on understanding the relationships among North American camel spiders and the discovery of new species.

“The most important thing Eastern is getting out of this is student training in some very marketable laboratory skills,” said Graham. “The genomics techniques they are learning are really powerful and generate exponentially more data than traditional approaches.”

Genomics is a branch of molecular biology focusing on the structure, function, evolution and mapping of genomes. A genome is an organism’s complete set of DNA, including all of its genes.

Graham and Eastern student Michelina Pinto utilized a new method of trapping camel spiders this past summer in the Mojave Desert. Attracted by a light that hangs from the stake, the camel spiders wander into the fence (landscape edging), which guides them into a pitfall trap with propylene glycol — a mixture that preserves DNA but is safe for wildlife to drink.

As part of the project, the Eastern team will travel to deserts of the United States and Mexico to trap specimens. This past summer in the Mojave Desert, Graham and Eastern biology student Michelina Pinto used a new method to trap camel spiders, which resulted in many more collections. Their method involves installing pitfall traps with lights (lures) above them. Graham, Pinto and Cushing co-authored a manuscript describing the technique and recently submitted it for publication in a scientific journal.

After specimens have been collected, they are preserved in ethanol and sent to Cushing’s team in Denver for species identification. Back at Eastern, the genome is extracted from muscle tissue using a laboratory procedure. The genome occurs as long strands of DNA. Using special enzymes, which Graham describes as “tiny molecular scissors,” they’ll chop up the DNA into manageable pieces and tag them with molecular barcodes before sending them off campus for DNA sequencing.

“After sequencing, we’re going to have tons of DNA data,” said Graham. “We hope to team up with our math department and use bioinformatics to analyze all this data. Patterns in the DNA will show us how populations of these desert animals have responded to climate change.”

Graham’s team will perform this process on numerous samples collected from deserts across the Southwest. They will return to the Mojave and other arid landscapes throughout the American Southwest over the next four years, as well as go on an extensive sampling expedition along the Baja California peninsula in 2020.

“A lot of what we thought we knew about camel spiders turned out to be wrong,” said Graham, referring to new science that has rejected previous assumptions about solifuges.

The primary goals of the project are to (1) revise the taxonomy (classification) of species of North American camel spiders, (2) provide new online resources about their biology, (3) expand digital records within the NSF’s arthropod database, (4) create an online guide to camel spiders of North America, and (5) inspire and train the next generation of arachnologists.

For more information, visit http://www.solifugae.info/proposal%201733117.html.

Eastern Welcomes New Full-Time Faculty, Staff

Eastern Connecticut State University welcomed several new full-time faculty and administrative staff to the campus community this fall. They include Eastern alumni, former adjunct professors and scholars from across the country and beyond. Their knowledge and expertise will benefit students and the University as a whole as they settle into departments across campus. Eastern’s new hires include:

Academic faculty

Education

Caitlin Tenney

Caitlin Tenney is a new assistant professor in the Department of Education.  She is interested in working on projects that advocate for women and minorities in science and science education. Tenney has taught science at the high school level and served as an adjunct instructor in Eastern’s Biology Department. She has a master’s degree in secondary science education from the University of Massachusetts.

“Eastern is a special place and teaching here is a privilege,” said Tenney, who enjoys working with students of different backgrounds as well as her passionate and supportive colleagues. “I hope to bring a powerful energy and love of learning to my students. I want to prepare them to be great teachers who will make a positive and lasting impact in this world.”

Outside of academia, Tenney loves to travel and enjoys outdoor activities such as snowboarding and swimming in the ocean. She also loves spending time with her four-year-old twins and cheering on her husband’s hockey team.

Heather Bassett

Heather Bassett ’09 is a new assistant professor in the Department of Education. A graduate of Eastern’s early childhood education program, she is currently working on her doctoral degree in early childhood special education at the University of Connecticut. She is interested in family-centered practices and the infusion of creativity into the classroom.

“I hope to bring out my students’ unique talents and strengths,” said Bassett. “It is my mission to empower students so they have what it takes to teach in the ever-changing 21st century.”

Outside of work, Bassett enjoys spending time with her husband and two young sons. She and her husband are also licensed real estate agents who buy, sell and renovate properties. 

Matthew Puhlick is a new assistant professor in the Department of Education. A two-time graduate of Eastern (undergraduate degree in 1993; master’s degree in 2001), he has a doctoral degree in curriculum, teaching, learning and leadership from Northeastern University. Puhlick has taught at the elementary school level and has expertise with educational technology for curricular planning and delivery.

“I am thrilled to return to the campus that has provided me with so many opportunities,” said Puhlick. “I hope my many years of experience in education allow me to help prospective teachers challenge their assumptions, learn new skills and think critically about the world of education.”

Puhlick also enjoys cooking, traveling and exploring the world with his wife and three children.

Biology

Derek Laux is a new assistant professor in the Department of Biology, specializing in cell biology. Laux earned his Ph.D. from the University of Pittsburgh and was a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Edinburgh. His research has focused on the role of innate immune cells in early cancer development.

“I am excited to help Eastern students grow and to train the next generation of biological scientists,” said Laux. “I love the field of biology. I hope my students develop a love of science, an appetite for discovery, a passion for hard work, and learn that all of us can contribute a verse to the records of life and learning.”

Outside of the lab, Laux enjoys being outdoors, surfing, reading and playing the piano.

Performing Arts

DeRon Williams

DeRon Williams is a new assistant professor for the Theatre Program, specializing in directing. Williams received his master’s in arts administration from Eastern Michigan University and his Ph.D. in Fine Arts-Theatre at Texas Tech University. He is a director, arts administrator and scholar of 20th– and 21st-century American drama and Black expressive culture.

“Eastern is student-centered and committed to diverse perspectives, which I believe is the purpose of higher education and imperative for future leaders, arts supporters and global citizens,” said Williams. “It is my hope to engage students in diverse perspectives of the arts, imparting my knowledge and love for Black theatre and performance through seminar and practical courses.”

Outside of academia, Williams enjoys going to the theatre, traveling and spending time with family and friends.

David Ballena

David Ballena is a new assistant professor for the Music Program, specializing in piano. A native of Peru, he received his early training at the Conservatorio Nacional de Musica before traveling to the United States where he earned a Doctor of Musical Arts in Collaborative Piano from the University of Maryland-College Park.

“I am excited to be more involved in the life of the campus community,” said Ballena, who has taught at Eastern for the past five years as an adjunct professor for the Music Program. “I look forward to sharing with my students the many things I’ve learned from my own teachers and professional experience—I hope to help them understand the resilience and work ethic required to succeed in a career in music.”

Outside of work, Ballena and his wife enjoy playing tennis and attending tournaments. They drive every summer to Colorado, where he works at the Aspen Music Festival.

Business Administration

Jean Cooley

Jean Cooley is a new assistant professor in the Department of Business Administration, specializing in accounting. Cooley earned master’s degrees in business administration and accounting at Northeastern University, and has more than 20 years of experience as a certified public accountant.

“I hope to encourage students to use their time at Eastern to truly discover their passions,” said Cooley. “I want to get them excited about their futures and learn to use their talents to impact others’ lives.”

Cooley also enjoys listening to music, riding roller coasters, traveling and spending time with family.

Erik Christensen ’07 is a new assistant professor in the Department of Business Administration, specializing in accounting. An Eastern graduate, he also holds a master’s degree in accounting from the University of Connecticut. Christensen is a certified public accountant who has served as the finance director for the Town of Griswold.

“I hope to impart in students the knowledge students will need to be successful,” said Christensen. “I hope to bring my industry experience into the classroom and share some of the experiences I’ve had as a CPA.”

Outside of work, Christensen enjoys watching and playing sports, traveling and being on the ocean.

Computer Science

Tim Hartley is a new assistant professor in the Department of Computer Science. He holds a master’s degree in computer science from Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a master’s degree in linguistics from the University of Connecticut, as well as a diploma in Mandarin Chinese from the Defense Language Institute, which he earned while serving in the U.S. Air Force. Hartley has held full-time appointments as an assistant professor at the University of Hartford and as an associate professor at Rensselaer at Hartford. He has also co-authored three textbooks on database technology.

Health Science

Paul Canavan is a new assistant professor in the Department of Health Sciences. An expert on the lower extremity of the body, Canavan earned a Master of Arts and Ph.D. in Kinesiology from the University of Connecticut as well as a Doctor of Physical Therapy from Northeastern University.

“I’m excited to join Eastern full time,” said Canavan, who has taught at Eastern as an adjunct professor for three years. “I hope to bring to students a desire to learn and provide opportunities for them to practically apply class information.”

Outside of academia, Canavan enjoys hiking, fishing, reading and spending time with his wife and son.

Mitchell Doucette is a new assistant professor in the Department of Health Science. He received his Ph.D. in Health Policy and Management from the Johns Hopkins Bloomberg School of Public Health, and was selected as the 2017-18 William Haddon Jr. Fellow in Injury Prevention. Doucette’s research interests include injury prevention and control and longitudinal panel analysis.

Sociology

Rachael Pesta is a new assistant professor in the Department of Sociology, Anthropology, Criminology and Social Work, specializing in criminology. She received her master’s degree in criminal justice from Youngstown State University and her Ph.D. in sociology from the University of Akron. Pesta’s teaching interests include criminological theory, research methods and social inequalities in the criminal justice system.

“I am excited to join an institution that provide students with a top-quality liberal arts education that extends beyond the classroom and brings ‘textbook learning’ to life,” said Pesta. “I am eager to engage students in critical and abstract thinking by using active learning. It’s important that students see how theory impacts the world around us and informs our everyday life.”

Pesta enjoys reading, hiking the beautiful trails around Connecticut, and listening to podcasts. 

Administrative faculty

Admissions

Dempsey Schott

Dempsey Schott is the newest admissions counselor for the Office of Admissions. She graduated from Muhlenberg College in 2018 with a bachelor’s degree in English and creative writing, and has experience as a head tour guide with Muhlenberg’s admissions office during her undergraduate career. This fall, Schott will be travelling to Fairfield County and Long Island to recruit students.

“I am excited to be a part of a community that cares about shaping graduates who are informed and successful global citizens,” said Schott, who is attracted to Eastern’s public liberal arts mission. “I hope to showcase the institution to prospective students who otherwise might not have considered Eastern.”

Outside of work, you can find Schott running, hiking, baking vegan desserts, singing and drinking excessive amounts of coffee.

Financial Aid

Velma Walters

Velma Walters is an assistant to the director in the Office of Financial Aid. She earned her master’s degree in public administration from American International College and has more than 20 years of experience in higher education and more than 15 years in financial aid. Among her duties, Walters will work with the STEP/CAP Program.

“I am excited to be part of a fantastic liberal arts university that is rich in diversity and producing well-rounded leaders who make their mark on society,” said Walters. “I bring to Eastern my experience, my passion for education and my commitment to helping students realize their dream of a college degree.”

Walters is also a member of the public service organization Delta Sigma Theta Sorority, Inc., as well as an independent beauty consultant for Mary Kay Skin Care & Cosmetics.

Registrars

Mary-Francis Ricks

Mary-Francis Ricks ’11 is an assistant degree auditor in the Office of the Registrar. An Eastern graduate with a degree in communication, she earned a master’s degree in human development and family studies from the University of Rhode Island. Ricks has higher education experience in advising, career services and housing.

“Eastern is the place that sparked my passion for student affairs; I’m excited to be working at a university that aligns with my values,” said Ricks, who often interacts with graduating seniors in her new role. “I hope to be a guiding, clarifying resource for these students.”

Ricks loves to travel, and recently visited Ireland. In February she plans to explore Spain.

Academic Services Center

Carlos Castillo is a professional advisor with the Academic Services Center. He holds a master’s degree in organizational management and leadership from Springfield College and comes to Eastern after being a family and community engagement liaison with the Capitol Region Educational Council in Harford. Castillo is currently completing his dissertation for a doctorate in adult learning.

Lauren Eddy is a professional advisor with the Academic Services Center. She joins Eastern after working at the University of Maine as an athletic academic counselor. She is a graduate of Central Connecticut State University where she earned bachelor’s degrees in history and English and a master’s in counseling with a concentration in student development.

Written by Michael Rouleau

Eastern’s Tropical Biology Field Course Reaches Milestone

50 Years of Students becoming Scientists

A group of Eastern students crosses a suspension bridge into the Costa Rican jungle at dusk.

The sun was setting on Costa Rica. The air was thick with humidity and adrenaline. The rain was coming down, and Nicholas Kukla, a biology student at Eastern Connecticut State University, was about to step foot on a narrow suspension bridge.

Roughly 30 meters off the ground and 100 meters away from their destination, this was the moment that Kukla and his group had been waiting for. They were venturing from the comfort of their lodge into the deepness of the rainforest for the first and only night-hike of their field trip in the Central American country.

“Once we got into the rainforest, the first thing I noticed were the sounds,” recalled Kukla. “A rush of sounds from different directions had my head swiveling. I wanted to know what each twig snap and leaf rustle could be.”

Using artificial light to see in the pitch-black forest, the researchers spent hours investigating tropical organisms. Among their finds, they discovered the bullet ant, named for a debilitating sting that some say is the most painful in existence. The creature rested comfortably on the handrail of the guided trail, unbothered by its visitors.

“It was the process of turning over every log and exploring every dark hole we encountered that made the night-hike so special,” Kukla said. “This trip really shows you how science works at the smallest levels.”

Since 1968, Eastern’s biology department has taken students on a tropical biology field experience—known as a “global field course” (GFC)—in international locales. This May, a riveting trip to Costa Rica marked the department’s 50th annual trip. The country is a frequent destination due to its tropical rainforests and rich biodiversity.

 

The biology GFC is the longest running program of its kind at Eastern. Destinations have changed over time, initially taking students to Bermuda. In 1984, the department introduced Jamaica as a second location, though Belize took its place by 1986. Bermuda and Belize alternated each year until 2001, when San Salvador Island in the Bahamas replaced Bermuda. Costa Rica replaced the Belize course as a destination in 2008.

Biology Professor Charles Booth has seen much of this evolution, teaching more than 20 global field courses throughout his Eastern tenure.

“My first trip was in May of 1985 to Bermuda with former professors Barry Wulff and Michael Gable,” he said. “I have many great memories — nighttime walks through the Belize rainforest, using a headlamp to spot animals; scuba diving with hammerhead sharks off San Salvador; visiting spectacular Mayan ruins in Belize and Guatemala. My best memories are sharing the experiences with students.”

“Every time I teach the course, I have unique experiences,” said Biology Professor Patricia Szczys. “What I love most about the tropical biology course is to witness the first-time rainforest experiences of my students. Plants, animals and cultural differences that have become familiar to me over 20 years feel new and exciting when I travel with them. Each student brings me a new perspective.”

 

Szczys, alongside Biology Professor Matthew Graham, accompanied 14 students on the trip this May. During the school year preceding the trip, students worked in groups to read the literature and design an experiment later to be executed in Costa Rica. This coming fall 2018 semester, they will analyze the data and create posters that convey their research. Several students are planning to submit their work for publication.

Biology student Jessica Purick and her group studied the effects of visual and olfactory cues on behavioral responses of the strawberry poison dart frog. “It was a very hands-on adventure with lots of hiking and sightseeing. It definitely made me want to do another research trip in the future and travel more in general.”

“The knowledge and experiences that I gained during my days in Costa Rica were invaluable,” added student Nathan Murphy. “Not only did the trip allow me to explore places I’d never imagined seeing before, it also allowed our class to perform scientific research projects involving real-world data collection and experimentation that would not be possible in the United States.”

Eastern students scuba dive in the Bahamas.

“For students in our tropical biology courses,” said Booth, “the biological concepts they read about in textbooks and hear about in lectures come alive when they visit an oceanic island, snorkel on a coral reef or walk through a tropical rainforest. They see exotic plants and animals up close and gain a sense of how tropical organisms interact. They learn how plant and animal communities are structured and how they differ from the communities that we have in New England.”

Booth continued: “The students also learn about new cultures. They see how the local people interact with their environment, how they use native plants and animals for food and medicine. Bermuda, Belize and the Bahamas are English-speaking countries, former British colonies, but they have distinct histories, cultures and customs. The Costa Rica course exposes students to a very different, predominantly Spanish-speaking culture. Among the students who go on these trips, some have never been out of New England, some have never flown on a plane before and some have never been out of the United States. The trips become a transforming experience for many, exposing them to a world they may have only read about or perhaps never knew existed.”

Speaking to the transformation, Kukla added, “These trips really make you feel like you’re transitioning from a student to a scientist.”

In San Salvador, students study the biology of tropical terrestrial and marine ecosystems. Marine studies focus on coral reef, sea grass bed, mangrove, beach and rocky shore communities. Terrestrial studies examine cave, mud flat, sand dune and upland shrub communities. San Salvador’s flora and fauna include both native and introduced species, making the island a natural laboratory for studying island biogeography.

Studying in Costa Rica increases student understanding of tropical ecosystems by reviewing fundamental concepts of tropical ecology, as well as various topics currently attracting research attention. Considerable effort is devoted to assignments and activities designed to enhance educational value. In addition to factual and conceptual content, the course centers on the design and execution of field studies in tropical biology.

 

“All students return changed in some way,” said Szczys. “Some students realize that they love and have a talent for field work, others realize that they are much more interested in laboratory-based biology. All return with an appreciation of tropical biodiversity and the complexity of tropical field studies, along with an understanding of a new culture. Our students return having overcome environmental, cultural and intellectual challenges.”

These challenges, according to Szczys, include handling wildlife, lack of air conditioning amid intense humidity, and troubleshooting experimental designs with limited Internet service.

“For most, perhaps all students, the trips offer a chance to reflect on their personal lives and goals,” added Booth. “Some students decide they want to travel more, and they have newfound confidence in their ability to travel internationally, while some want to go to graduate school to study tropical environments. Others simply have a new perspective on their lives in the United States after having experienced life in another country.”

He also noted that global field courses are as much a learning experience for faculty as they are for students. “I learn something new on every trip — not just biology, but I have gained a better understanding of countries we have visited, and have gotten to know the students better. These experiences helped, I think, to make me a better teacher and mentor back on campus, and to make me a more informed citizen.”

Szczys concurred, “It is a privilege to share my interests as a biologist and experience as a global citizen with my students.”

“The Costa Rica trip was absolutely unforgettable,” concluded Kukla. “I am so thankful to Eastern for providing me with this opportunity that has sparked a permanent interest in rainforest biology.”

Written by Jordan Corey