Interview with Professors John Baker and John Rogan

Professors John Baker and John Rogan talk about the importance of undergraduate research at Clark.

Are all undergraduate biology students at Clark associated with a lab?

Prof. Baker: At Clark we're involved in teaching and research, and it's reflected in the fact there's a huge percentage of freshman biology majors working in labs. Basically, if a student wants to get into a lab and wants to put in the work, they can find one. There is no full lab quota. In fact, last week I met students at 7:30, 8:30, 9:30, 10:30, 1:30, 2:30 and 3:30—all undergraduates working in our lab who are trying to get their own projects going. I met with them in the lab, in my office—I even met one over lunch.

Why do you think it's important for undergrads to do research so early in their scientific careers?

Prof. Baker: If you think about what it took us to get to where we are in terms of understanding the systems and things we work with in detail, you realize it's basically a lifelong thing. The learning curve is steep at first but it always trends up. The idea is that before a student leaves the university setting and has to be out on their own, you want to get them as high up on that curve. And that means you want the learning to be steep. Where you get to on that curve is also a function of where you start. That's why we really encourage student research early on. Three or four lectures into the fall semester Intro to Biology course I'm over there making a pitch about research in general and about our lab. We get a lot of students who are interested as freshman—and that's ideal because you can work them into thinking about science without overburdening them. As sophomores, they start working in on real stuff. As juniors they start working on their own stuff. So you really get an extra year or two to educate them in actual research which means they are two years ahead when they come out of here and go to graduate school. It's just invaluable.

Prof. Rogan: I've been working with undergraduates for the three years I've been here in a program called HERO—Human Environment Research Observatory. They have got a lot of experience in doing work that, in my own experience, I didn't get to do until I was a master's student. So the students are tenacious here, and very bright. We meet them halfway and say, "We have this problem here. Why don't you have a go at it as well?" As I said, these problems are vague, and we are approaching them in a holistic way. So you need as many people as possible to put the rise on it. That's why it's imperative to have undergraduates involved and to publish and to keep them on in graduate school if possible.

Can you tell me more about the on-site research undergraduates do with you and Susan Foster in Alaska during the summers?

Prof. Baker: Susan Foster and I have been studying a little fish called the threespine stickleback since the '80s. In the early '90s we moved from British Columbia to Alaska because there were far more populations with more diverse variations of stickleback from one lake to the next. We moved up there and got a National Science Foundation grant so we could take a number of students up to Alaska with us. A lot of our fieldwork is relatively inexpensive, so, with a grant we can take a large number of students to Alaska with us, almost all of whom work on our projects. Some do collections with me; some do in-water work with Susan. But we can take such a large group. And we've got students crowding in the door. We've got 11 undergraduates just in our lab this semester.

Would you tell me more about your research?

Prof. Baker: Initially, the work was focused almost completely on male mating behavior but it quickly broadened and got involved in life history traits like egg size, the size at which they mature, and those sorts of things. Right after that it mushroomed, and we got students more interested in lake history and chemistry. By about 1995 there were a large number of universities and different interests involved—everything from morphology to behavior to lake chemistry—all ready to take the next step to think about conservation and ecology.

We were up there in early June 1996 renting an abandoned trout hatchery for our base of operations when our group was caught in one of the largest fires in that area in recent memory. We had to evacuate with all our students and then go back in after about a week. When we did and picked up our studies, we quickly realized that this was an opportunity to get involved on a different level. The fire provided a nice experiment for us in that it basically burned through half of our study area and left the other half untouched. We have a lot of lakes that we knew well for four or five years. The watersheds to many of them burnt to the ground, which allowed us to think about larger scale effects because forest fires are a natural part of these arboreal ecosystems. But they usually occur at intervals of 200 years or so. Now because of various global climate change there, fires will generally be more frequent, which really resets the whole ecology.

Then it struck us that the area has become more populous—it has quadrupled in population since we started work in 1992. So we have urbanization on top of this. So we finally got to the point as field biologists and ecologists that we needed to take yet another step and look at this at a big level—to look at landscape level effects with GIS [Geographical Information Science.] And if you say landscape level effects at Clark the name John Rogan pops right to the top.

Do you go to Alaska too?

Prof. Rogan: Where I come in, I suppose, is I have a background in fire management and ecology and geographic information science (GIS) which uses satellite imagery to characterize very large landscapes where field data really wouldn't cut it. Collecting thousands and thousands of samples to characterize landscapes is not feasible for humans. But these satellites do it every two weeks whether we want them to or not. The data are relatively cheap, and we know how to process it. What interests me is that it gives you this root to branch experience, where there's something going on at the trophic level, in very, very fine detail, small special scale, classic biology to me—I'm not a biologist, I'm from geography; but I teach courses that are cross-listed with biology—and then to link that fine scale problem to phenomena that John was talking about. To me, looking at organization, wild fire, frequency and intensity of those fires is a holistic approach to a very serious problem. So you've got global environmental change on one scale and then you have an outcome of that change which is actually happening, despite what some might say, in Alaska.

How many students will you take with you to Alaska this summer?

Prof. Baker: As many as we can. It's been as many as 14 and as few as five or six. This year it will be in the area of ten. The reason we were particularly delighted that Jana [Loux-Turner '09] decided to work in our lab and will be going to Alaska with us this summer is that even though we cover virtually everything about stickleback, the one thing we are really deficient in so far is the lakes themselves—the food chain organisms that support the stickleback, the water chemistry that supports those, when do they ice out, how quickly do they warp? All these really feed into what the stickleback will be like. We've got nobody and have had nobody in this area. So when Jana said "I'm really interested in lakes themselves and how that feeds into the stickleback," I don't think I actually dropped to my knees but it was close! It's a perfect fit. And the timing is perfect too. It would have been interesting two or three years ago, but it's absolutely perfect timing now. So having Jana in our lab and in Alaska is going to be terrific.