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Why I Majored in Biology

Shan Ming Gao ’21

Before coming to Pomona, I went to Oakland Charter High (OCHS), where my only wet lab experience in the life sciences was a titration where I had to warm the solution between my legs. Yet for what my high school lacked for in financial and infrastructural resources, they made up for doubly in the determination and passion of its teachers. With them, I grew to love the breadth of academic disciplines and the depth of knowledge each teacher tried to share with me. My favorite class was biology. There, I learned to love the universality of biology’s influence and the invigorating feeling of understanding, mastering, and commanding knowledge in the life sciences.

My mind was set. I intended to be in biology when I was admitted to Pomona—though my transcript read “undecided” like everyone else’s. But I soon learned that my heart had to catch up. Pomona wasn’t OCHS. It was hard finding that powerful feeling of conceptual mastery, while shakily holding a microliter pipette that costs a grand or reviewing two months of my high school biology in four lectures. Science is expensive and challenging, and at the beginning of every semester my first year, I felt diminished by what OCHS couldn’t prepare me for.

So, why did I major in biology? Truth be told, I was still yearning for that empowering feeling of commanding knowledge. They say that once you learn something, it’s yours to keep. And, above all, I found support. As I struggled through introductory genetics, general chemistry, cellular biology, organic chemistry, and on and on, I could feel moments of conceptual mastery; and when I didn’t, I was reminded that I could and would, by my jubilant Pomona Scholars of Science cohort, the welcoming faculty, and my hardworking peers. Thus, I could persist. In the summer of 2018, I did a research experience for undergraduates (REU) with Tufts University, traveling from Massachusetts to Maryland and back, performing a self-designed experiment on the oviposition preference of Baltimore Checkerspot butterflies. This summer of 2019, I studied the metabolism and diet of the fastest animal on land (relative to body size!)- the mite Paratarsotomus macropalpis- with Professor Jonathan Wright through SURP! I consider biology to be one of the keys to truly explore the breadth and depth of the world, and it is with a lot of Sagehen support that I can keep chasing knowledge wholeheartedly.

Emma Paulini ’21

I chose to major in biology because I love learning about the natural world and the ways organisms interact and intertwine with their environment. Biology provides practical building blocks for better understanding, appreciating, and contributing positively to the existence of living beings. After taking Introduction to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, I’ve been focusing on the ecological and organismal aspects of biology (from animal behavior to plant physiology, plant ecology, and more). I appreciate the range of classes offered in the department, which have allowed me to explore a breadth of knowledge in the field. The Pomona College biology faculty are passionate about their respective fields and ready to share their excitement and expertise to create a cohesive, collaborative atmosphere. They are consistently receptive to students, whether we seek out help for class, want to chat about an interesting topic within the realm of biology or brainstorm about our future plans. Within the biology department, students are part of a warm and welcoming community that seeks to foster our interests academically and beyond.

Funded by the Pomona’s Summer Undergraduate Research Project (SURP) program, I conducted research with a colleague of Professor Daniel Martínez’s the summer after my first year of college. Under Robert Steele of UC Irvine, I worked in the hydra lab at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Woods Hole, MA. I had an amazing experience researching the social behavior of hydra, a freshwater cnidarian related to jellyfish, and an organism that has been studied for its ability to apparently live forever. Jumping into the world of research early in my college career was a valuable and enriching first-hand experience which familiarized me with the process of full-time research in a lab, one of the many pathways in the field of biology. I loved being part of a team working on some pretty cool research topics as an undergraduate. This past summer, I was able to combine my love for biology with my studies of German—I traveled to the Black Forest to study the diversity of plants in the region, and then volunteered with a conservation program and other students from across Europe on an island off the coast of northern Germany. While there, I removed invasive plant species from the native habitat and counted migrating birds who stopped on the island during their journey from the arctic circle to South Africa. My decision to embark on this interdisciplinary journey was inspired by my studies in the Pomona College Biology Department.

Sofia Dartnell ’22

I am the girl who sat still in the garden for hours, hoping a hovering dragonfly would land on me, the one who saved spiders from being squished, hand-carrying them to safety. I found myself flipping through nature encyclopedias even before I could read. I knew I loved biology and was intent on majoring from my first day at Pomona. I am fascinated by Earth’s biodiversity and the incredible animal lifestyles shaped by evolution. In particular, I am interested in insect life, a passion fostered by Professor Frances Hanzawa’s Insect Ecology & Behavior class, research in Professor Wallace Meyer’s lab, and field work in the Rocky Mountains this past summer.

The Biology Department’s sense of community and collaboration is instilled from the first day of Introductory Genetics. We are encouraged to work together on problem sets and to help each other understand class concepts. Professors have made an incredible effort to get to know me, asking me about life outside of class and even remembering some of my family members’ names after only a few conversations. The Biology Department also sponsors events to promote our bond beyond classroom hours. I enjoy getting to know students and professors outside of my classes during weekly BioLunches and, of course, the annual Dessert Party, where students and professors enjoy a variety of sweets and socialize before winter break.

My favorite aspect of biology at Pomona, though, is our proximity to the Bernard Field Station (BFS), which serves as a center of hands-on teaching and research for the 5Cs. We ventured to the field station almost weekly for my Introduction to Ecological and Evolutionary Biology class, whether to study scrub jay foraging preferences, take ground insect samples using pitfall traps, or analyze the genetic diversity of arthropods living in the station’s man-made lake. My experience at the BFS is what pushed me to find research opportunities on campus and beyond. I work in Professor Wallace Meyer’s lab, sorting and identifying ants collected at the BFS as part of a long-term study to understand the viability of different ant species within the station’s different habitat types. The ability to participate in ongoing research projects and gain field skills at the BFS is what hooked me on field work and confirmed my passion for biological research.

This past summer, I had the opportunity to work at the Rocky Mountain Biological Laboratory, working on a long-term bee phenology project and studying the effects of climate change on parasitic bees and their hosts. Despite restrictions brought about by the coronavirus pandemic, the opportunity to live and work among scientists at a field station was incredible. It is with the support and tools I’ve gained from the Pomona College Biology Department that I move forward towards a career in research and conservation.

Alexandria Long ’22

When I was 6 years old, my grandma gave me an ant vacuum. While she thought my hobbies strange, she appreciated that I would pick the hornworms off her tomato plants. I feel at ease in the natural world, with its complex clarity. Processes function in fixed ways (of course, with documented and studied exceptions), behaviors are triggered to produce expected results, and yet we can still manipulate all of that. Studying biology has always seemed to me a living pursuit in and of itself. The field is constantly growing and expanding, morphing itself as new discoveries are being made. Coming to Pomona my freshman year and learning of all the courses and opportunities in the department, I knew it was the right choice for me.

In my high school courses, I did not have access to materials for experiments. In the biology major at Pomona, I have been able to design and carry out multiple experiments from start to finish. While that was intimidating, the professors in the department were all so supportive and zealous in their field that confidence and passion rubbed off quickly. You are able to choose courses that cater to your interests, so I am more ecology based. My upper division courses have never had more that 12 students, with one course only having two other students, still being taught directly by a professor. Instruction is led as a discussion, and the professors are all welcoming and approachable, in and out of class. Within the department, I have found myself surrounded by professors and peers who will gladly observe ant grooming behaviors with me for hours at a time or discuss what really happens to a whale as it decomposes. The major can truly be what you want to make it.

In my Insect Ecology and Behavior course with Professor Frances Hanzawa, a project throughout our semester was creating an insect collection. This involved catching insects, learning how to identify them to order by sight, keying them to family and species, and finally pinning and creating the collection itself (which is a true art form). I carried around a kill jar to catch insects all semester, as well as engaged in butterfly net ventures around Marston Quad and the Bernard Field Station with my classmates. One specimen was a presumed dead Figeater beetle picked up on the walk to my organic chemistry lecture, which ended up being not so dead, and required me to hold the living beetle in my hand while taking notes for the whole lecture. While an admittedly strange way to spend a semester, I now am very competent with insect identification, which has proven a rather useful skill. This past summer, I used the abilities I gained from that course in my internship at Michigan Aerospace Corporation, where I created collections of insects invasive to the Michigan watersheds to be used in drone mapping and educational outreach.

The biology major is dynamic and tactile, and I would highly recommend it!

Andrea Pierre ’22

I choose to major in biology because of my passion for our oceans. In the future I hope to become a marine biologist/conservationist, using my love and knowledge to educate future generations on the importance of our oceans.

I absolutely love being a biology major and being a part of the Biology Department. It is full of people that have just as much passion and love for science as you do, in all areas. It’s a place where you learn something new with each conversation. You have plenty of opportunities to get to know other students and professors in the departments in both academic and informal settings.

Alongside all the in-class and in-field projects and activities, I had the amazing opportunity to become a Doris Duke Conservation Scholar where I spent two consecutive summers researching and learning all about conservation and marine biology. Throughout my three years at Pomona, I also had the chance to work with multiple professors in their labs on their personal research projects. I was also able to receive a Laboratory TA (teaching assistant) position where I tutored and assisted underclassmen biology majors in the subject.

I couldn’t have asked for a better department. I have learned so much and grown to love biology even more than when I started. You have so many opportunities to study what you want, while also assisting others in their research.

Alejandro Tovar ’22

When I first got into Pomona, I learned about an academic cohort called Pomona Scholars of Science (PSS) intended for first-generation, low-income (FLI) students to ease their transition into science classes at Pomona. Being in PSS, I was able to take my first-year introductory science classes alongside other FLI students who shared similar fears or confusions as I did throughout the school year and built community very early on. Being a part of such an important program was the reason I gravitated towards studying biology in the first place, that, along with the compassion and drive that my professors in the department showed in the classes I took.

The fact that a program like PSS even exists, I think, speaks to the commitment that the department has in ensuring an equitable system of education where all students, regardless of their academic backgrounds, can feel a part of the classes they are taking and know that the faculty are intentional creating a welcoming class environment for their students.

The summer after my first year at Pomona, I was able to work in the lab of Professor Sara Olson working on a research project whose goal was to use CRISPR/Cas-9 techniques to explore the role that a newly discovering gene, B0513.4, had on eggshell formation in the model organism Caenorhabditis elegan, or C. elegan. The goal of my part of the project was to use CRISPR, a gene editing tool, to insert an edit into the C. elegan's DNA that would allow the worms to glow green at the site of the B0513.4 gene which we could then look at under a microscope to see whether there was any effect on the formation of the eggshell. I was then able to present my research project at the 2019 National Diversity in STEM Conference in Honolulu, Hawaii, where Pomona was able to fully fund my trip and I presented my project at the poster presentation portion of the conference.

Jacob Ligorria ’23

I chose to major in biology because I am astounded by the plethora of organisms that I share the planet with. I am intrigued by the interconnectedness of all life on Earth and how species have adapted to thrive in the harshest of environments. In addition, I have known from a young age that I want to dedicate my life to conserving the world’s biodiversity and combating anthropogenic extinctions. Majoring in biology will enable me to study and understand ecosystems so that I can protect species that do not have a voice of their own.

One thing that I really love about the Biology Department is the approachableness of faculty members. As a first year, it was very intimidating to contact professors that I had never met before, but I quickly learned that they enjoy interacting with students. Whether it be at Oldenborg language tables, department events, or chance occurrences, biology professors often converse with students about topics ranging from juggling to their research experiences in the Arctic. I know that I can approach faculty members I have never taken classes with and ask them questions about studying abroad, discuss my academic course load for the next semester, or just chat with them.

I also appreciate how passionate professors are about biology and teaching students. I distinctly remember a lecture from my Introductory Genetics course, in which my professor talked about the foundational experiments that identified DNA as the carrier of genetic information. I could visibly see his excitement while he likened the experiments to fine art. My friends and I walked out of the lecture admiring his passion for biology and feeling even more energized about studying it.

Pomona’s biology classes prepare students to ask and answer their own scientific questions. I completed an independent project as part of the Insect Ecology and Behavior course I recently took. The assignment consisted of all the steps necessary to conduct scientific research, beginning with the formulation of a biologically significant question and culminating in the sharing of findings via a presentation and a scientific paper. I chose to investigate the effects of wind on Painted Lady caterpillar behavior because wind is a highly understudied environmental factor, despite having a nearly universal presence in terrestrial ecosystems. Although I conducted my experiment remotely, my professor ensured that I had all the supplies I needed to complete my project, including live caterpillars, and was always available to answer any questions I had. She readily gave me advice to improve the quality of my work and urged me to choose a research question that I was genuinely interested in. She, like other professors, sought to ensure that her students learned foundational research skills while enjoying their study of biology.

Although I am primarily interested in ecology, I have had the opportunity to explore other biological disciplines, including genetics and plant physiology. I participated in Pomona College’s Remote Alternative Independent Summer Experience (RAISE) program with a plant physiology professor as my mentor. I analyzed current scientific literature regarding telegraph plants, plants that move their leaflets very quickly, and identified the most prominent gaps in our understanding of leaflet motion to suggest future avenues of investigation. I was able to pursue the project not because I am committed to a career in plant physiology, but because I have a personal interest in studying plants. Biology majors are not confined to one area of life science but are encouraged to explore any and all interests they have.