Pursuing Research Opportunities during a Pandemic

How students in the College of Arts and Sciences are excelling in new learning environments

How students in the College of Arts and Sciences are excelling in new learning environments

The COVID-19 pandemic has altered many things across Millikin University's campus during the academic year, from classes to athletics.

However, these changes have not slowed down the Performance Learning curriculum that thrives across the campus community. In the College of Arts and Sciences, students are continuing to excel in new learning environments, especially through independent research opportunities that are being conducted in labs.

Dr. Travis Wilcoxen, associate professor of physiological ecology and chair of the Biology Department at Millikin, is among the many faculty members ramping up research efforts this academic year. Several of Wilcoxen's students are conducting research studies on birds and tadpoles, and while everyone is staying socially distant, each of his students have their own time in the lab to work on their projects.

Jazmin Brown Millikin University

Student Kimmy Christnacht, a senior theatre and biology double major, is studying malaria in birds, while senior Erika Castanon is studying biomarkers of natural stressors in birds. Senior Brianna Niebrugge is studying natural antibody production during a stress response in birds, while senior Aaron Gamsby is researching training of innate immune defenses against disease in tadpoles. Senior Jazmin Brown [seen pictured alongside Dr. Wilcoxen] has been utilizing the one-on-one research opportunities to study toxoplasmosis in birds.

"This year I am beginning to work on my senior research project with Professor Wilcoxen. We are using ELISA [enzyme-linked immunoassay] techniques and antibodies to detect Toxoplasma in the blood of birds," Brown said. "I am a very hands-on learner as a student and most of my classes are in-person because they are lab courses."

Brown says the most enjoyable part about beginning research as an undergraduate is receiving hands-on experience earlier than most students. "It has allowed me to be very confident in choosing my career path because I've already had experience with lab research and found that I love it," she said.

"Some things are very appropriate for what is going on in our world. I'm a wildlife disease researcher, and while I don't have anyone specifically working with COVID, some of the diseases that we study do jump from animals into humans, like COVID-19," said Wilcoxen.

In reference to the study on toxoplasmosis, Wilcoxen said, "We have a relationship with the Illinois Raptor Center where we've conducted many research projects, and one of our students is trying to see how frequently toxoplasmosis gets into the blood of birds of prey who are eating mice that have the parasite."

Jazmin Brown Millikin University

Wilcoxen says the research serves multiple benefits, such as understanding the movement of the parasite. "It also helps the Illinois Raptor Center understand the degree to which their birds might be exposed to that parasite," he noted.

These particular research projects in the Biology Department serve as valuable learning experiences for undergraduates as they prepare for the next step–graduate school. This is proven as Millikin has seen great success of alumni completing their research and having their work published in state, national and international journals.

"Over the past 10 years, there have been 37 publications in peer-reviewed journals from the Biology Department with Millikin student authors. An average of 3.7 per year is very high for a school our size," Wilcoxen said. "This is a great example of the emphasis that we place on becoming scientists rather than just science students."

Millikin Tri-Beta Chapter

Two recent graduates, Mackenzie Peck, Class of 2017, and Erin Lukens, Class of 2019, both had their research papers from their work at Millikin published in academic journals. Elyse Schnabel, Class of 2018, also had her research published in Fish Physiology and Biochemistry International Journal, while graduates Samuel Billig, Class of 2020, and Rachel Weber, Class of 2017, were lead authors on a paper published in a special issue of Journal of Experimental Zoology.

"Science is a process, and when you teach students how to think through a process and when they experience something new they have never seen before, they have the skills to work through it," Wilcoxen said. "They are taught to find evidence, build an argument and to ask questions."

Jazmin Brown says the students and faculty have done a good job of adapting to all the changes in learning. "The pandemic has made it difficult for everybody to adjust, and I feel like Millikin as a community of students and faculty members have done a pretty good job of it."

Randy Brooks
Dr. Randy Brooks, Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences

"The faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences have quickly adjusted to online learning opportunities and found ways to maximize time together with students on Zoom or with small numbers of socially distanced students in person. For example, all chemistry labs are still in person with about seven students in a laboratory at a time."

"The biggest challenge has been to find new ways of engagement, active learning, dynamic Socratic debate and community, although students and teachers may be physically distant from each other. The learning goals for courses have not changed—to prepare students for professional success, a personal life of meaning and value, and to be citizens in a global society. I applaud the faculty and students for their dedication to learning and growth."