Biology faculty excel in offering real, world scientific experiences

Bonnie Winston
March 05, 2012

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When the Elizabeth City State University Board of Trustees meets later this month, the university's Department of Biology is expected to undergo a transformation.

The result?

A name change to better reflect the range and educational mission of the department that touches the lives of more than 500 students (biology majors and non-majors who take courses in the department) each year.

"We will become the Department of Biology and Marine Environmental Science," said Dr. Jeffrey M. Rousch, the department chair who has taught at ECSU since 2003.

The department, with 12 faculty, an endowed professorship, two laboratory/research technicians, an administrative associate and two adjunct faculty members, has offered bachelor of science degrees in biology and marine environmental science since about 2006, Rousch said.

Its comprehensive program offers students highly active research opportunities with real world equipment used in coastal marine research, alternative energy production and cancer biology research project that can lead to post-baccalaureate positions or acceptance at university professional programs.

"We excel in providing real-world scientific experiences to students outside the formal classroom," he said.

"Our students use a range of equipment, including microscopy, electrophoresis, atomic absorption spectrophotometers," Rousch said. "They use some of the same kind of equipment you would find in a biotechnology company or pharmaceutical company, environmental division for marine fisheries -- local types of entities doing environmental investigations and public health types of activities."

A major strength of the department is the opportunity for undergraduate students to engage in hands-on research with faculty. Currently, the department has about $750,000 in outside research grants, Rousch said, in addition to financial support from various entities, such as the U.S. Department of Education's McNair Scholars Program and the National Science Foundation's Louis Stokes Alliance for Minority Participation.

"Some students work one-on-one with faculty research advisors or faculty collaborators on such things as plant transformations, using chemical instrumentation, identifying nematode species, performing field research, sequencing plant DNA and identifying microbes and transforming protozoan species or simple animals," Rousch said. His own research, which includes students, involves where aquatic pollutants end up in various organisms.

The research helps students become more competitive in the job market, in addition to enhancing the faculty's professional development.

"One of the ways the university attracts high quality teachers is by allowing them to also pursue their research interests. If we're not obtaining grants and publishing in our field, we become very stagnant. The fact that we perform this research energizes us and we become much better teachers and lecturers as a result of the research we perform outside of the classroom. That's why it's so important for us to do that," Rousch said.

Students in the ECSU Honors Program are required to do research. Several projects are conducted under this effort, he continued.

The department encourages students to complete internships and to shadow professionals in the field to get a deeper understanding of what's involved in related careers.

ECSU students have shadowed health professionals at Albemarle Hospital, in local pharmacies and at area veterinary clinics, he said. They also have worked with middle school students at Port

Discover's Second Saturday Science program in downtown Elizabeth City, in plant biotechnology at major firms such as Monsanto and in coastal research with collaborative programs at Duke University and the Virginia Institute of Marine Science through the College of William and Mary.

Rousch said further collaborations are in the works with the Research Triangle Institute, a quasi-public-private partnership in North Carolina involved in cancer research, environmental research, product safety and other scientific research.

Because ECSU requires all students at the university to take a science and a lab course for graduation, the department has to balance the interests of non-majors through highly interesting and engaging general biology and environmental science classes.

"The teachers who teach these non-major classes are expert at relating scientific concepts to what students do in their everyday lives," Rousch said. "We'll talk a lot about why you find plants where they are, why they bend toward the light, what did you eat for breakfast and how you derive energy from that, why do you breathe, what comes out? What goes in? So we try to relate these scientific concepts to something that students see in their lives every day. And it makes it more exciting."

The hands-on classes have turned some students into biology and marine science majors, he said.

"We pride ourselves on imparting our knowledge and experiences in an approachable and nurturing manner. We're a very non-intimidating bunch," Rousch said. "I think I speak for all of our professors when I say that the best route to learning is making certain the student feels comfortable asking questions."

Rousch, who earned bachelor's degrees from two different universities, said he found that a large, undergraduate environment can be extremely isolating.

"And we're not like that at ECSU. We have the best of both worlds. We have university resources as far as the equipment, the experiences and the physical spaces, but that small-town feel where the students know us all. We're approachable walking down the hall, walking across campus or in our offices. That is a great blending of both of those strengths."

This article is part of a series of features spotlighting the chairpersons of ECSU's academic departments.