CentreTerm 2015: Dr. Wooten’s students examine nature’s most extreme organisms

Posted by Centre News in Academics, Biology, Campus, CentreTerm, Research 06 Jan 2015

Wooten CT PSAmong the essential features of a one-of-a-kind Centre Experience is CentreTerm, the College’s three-week January session in which students study a single topic intensively. Over the course of this unique term, students in Assistant Professor of Biology Jessica Wooten’s Life in Extreme Environments class will study some of nature’s most unique organisms, from albatrosses to salamanders to humans.

“We will study the physiological, behavioral and morphological adaptations of organisms that live in challenging or extreme environments,” explains Wooten. Her interest in the subject originated from her research at the University of Alabama, where she studied the physiology of Burmese pythons, blood pythons and other giant snakes that have adapted to eat as little as twice per year.

Assistant Professor of Biology Jessica Wooten, right, and her students will study salamanders this CentreTerm.

Assistant Professor of Biology Jessica Wooten, right, and her students will study salamanders this CentreTerm.

“For example, Lake Eyre dragons are agamid lizards found in the salt crust of dry lake basins in South Australia. They never drink water, because there is no water for them to drink. They have extensive physiological adaptations that allow for them to survive in these very hot temperatures,” she says.

“Humans can be extreme organisms too,” she adds. “People who climb very high mountains can experience generalized hypoxia when they ascend to high altitudes, but can acclimate to lower oxygen levels by remaining at the same altitude for one rest day, thus preventing the onset of hypoxia.”

Students in the class will lead discussions and create videos on topics such as hot bodies in cold environments and some organisms’ high salt tolerance, but the focus of the course will be a hands-on research project with an enticing incentive.

“Students will investigate the behavior of small woodland salamanders in response to food availability,” says Wooten. “They will collect and analyze data and write a manuscript of their findings, which will then be formally peer-reviewed by three scientists not affiliated with the College. The students with the highest ranked manuscripts will be invited to be authors on a research article that we will submit for publication to a mid-tier, peer-reviewed scientific journal in the spring.”

In addition to practicing research and writing at a professional scientific level, students will see for themselves the importance of a holistic approach to biology.

“I want students to understand that you cannot study an organism in a jar, or stuffed in a museum, or even as a live organism. One must study the organism as a whole, including its anatomical and physiological function, the environment in which it lives, the behaviors in which it uses to survive, and most importantly, how all of those components align to allow these organisms to thrive in harsh environments.”

Wooten, who joined Centre’s faculty in the fall of 2014, is looking forward to her leading her first CentreTerm class because of the opportunities it will afford.

“There are many benefits to teaching in an intensely focused and fast-paced structure like this, such as immersion in a broad topic with narrowly focused subtopics, the close relationships among faculty and students that emerge, and the fact that students can focus their attention on one course, rather than trying to divide their time among several courses.”

Learn more about CentreTerm.

by Caitlan Cole