UMBC Biological Sciences Faculty Explain Benefits of Active Learning in Nature News

Sarah LeupenSeveral UMBC biological sciences faculty and staff were featured in a Nature article on July 15 about the benefits of active learning in science courses. Neuroscientist Sarah Leupen was quoted in the story and described a question that spurs interesting discussion in her introductory physiology class: You’re innocently walking down the street when aliens zap away the sensory neurons in your legs. What happens?

“We usually get lots of vigorous debate on this one,” said Leupen, who spends most of her class time firing such questions at her students. “It’s lovely to experience.” Leupen said the students grapple with the material they learn by discussing the options in teams. And if a team gets a question wrong, she says, “that’s usually a good thing — because then they really remember it.”

Jeff LeipsJeff Leips, a professor of biological sciences, is also quoted in the article and said it requires compromise to get past simply communicating factual knowledge covered in a course. “You have to accept that you can’t cover everything to the same level,” he said.

Linda Hodges, a biochemist and head of the Faculty Development Center at UMBC, is the author of a forthcoming book on overcoming obstacles to education reform. She noted that for many scientists, active learning can be at odds with their beliefs about teaching content and the factual knowledge covered in a given course.

Read “Why we are teaching science wrong, and how to make it right,” in Nature.

Biological Sciences Faculty and Ph.D. Student Find Light-Sensitive Components in Cephalopod Skin

croninThomas Cronin, biological sciences, and Alexandra Kingston, Ph.D. candidate in biological sciences, worked with scientists at the Marine Biological Laboratory in Massachusetts to find that squid and cuttlefish possess light-sensitive proteins called opsins on their skin. Their findings were published in the Journal of Experimental Biology last week and have received widespread media coverage.

Their discovery suggests, but does not prove, that cephalopods might be able to sense light through their skin. “All the machinery is there for them to be light-sensitive but we can’t prove that,” Cronin told National Geographic. “We don’t know if they contribute to camouflage or are just general light sensors for circadian cycling or are driving hormonal changes. They have a job to do but we don’t know what it is.”

Click here to read “Octopuses, and Maybe Squid, Can Sense Light With Their Skin” in National Geographic.

Additional coverage:
Light Sensors in Cephalopod Skin (The Scientist)
Scientists say octopuses use opsins in their skin to detect light and color, not their eyes (Standard Daily)
Cephalopods can sense Light through Skin (NY City News)
Cephalopods skin is intrinsically light sensitive contributing to unique and novel patterning abilities (US Finance Post)

Jeffrey Gardner Receives Dept. of Energy Early Career Award

gardnerThe U.S. Department of Energy (DOE) has selected UMBC’s Jeffrey Gardner, assistant professor of biological sciences, for a 2015 Early Career Research Program award. This program supports exceptional researchers early in their careers, when many scientists do their most formative work.

The DOE award will provide five years of support for Dr. Gardner’s research into the use of plants as a renewable energy source. Most animals can’t use wood as an energy source because they are unable to digest plant cell walls. Termites are able to get energy from wood thanks to the help of bacteria that live in the termites’ digestive system. Similarly, bacteria living in soil can digest freshly fallen wood and other plant materials, which gives the bacteria energy while converting the fallen plant material into more soil.

The Gardner lab is focused on improving our understanding of one of these soil bacteria, in the hope that the techniques used by these bacteria to extract energy from plants can someday be used by humans as a renewable source of clean energy. Dr. Gardner’s work is focused on how this particular species of bacterium is able to detect the presence of digestible plant material and on how these bacteria regulate the production of chemicals they use to digest it efficiently. Dr. Gardner takes an interdisciplinary approach, studying both the genetics and biochemistry of the bacteria.

“I am extremely excited to be selected for a DOE Early Career Award,” said Dr. Gardner. “It presents an excellent opportunity to pursue fundamental research that can translate into applied bioenergy solutions.”

Visual Ecology, Tom Cronin

A new book written by Tom Cronin and colleagues — the publisher’s note says:

“Visual ecology is the study of how animals use visual systems to meet their ecological needs, how these systems have evolved, and how they are specialized for particular visual tasks. Visual Ecology provides the first up-to-date synthesis of the field to appear in more than three decades. Featuring some 225 illustrations, including more than 140 in color, spread throughout the text, this comprehensive and accessible book begins by discussing the basic properties of light and the optical environment. It then looks at how photoreceptors intercept light and convert it to usable biological signals, how the pigments and cells of vision vary among animals, and how the properties of these components affect a given receptor’s sensitivity to light. The book goes on to examine how eyes and photoreceptors become specialized for an array of visual tasks, such as navigation, evading prey, mate choice, and communication.”

Update: The Guardian post 

LA Times: Mantis shrimp wear tinted shades to see UV light, Tom Cronin and Michael Bok

“When you look at a mantis shrimp, you see a vivid lobster-like crustacean whose forearms can strike with the force of a .22-caliber bullet. But when a mantis shrimp looks at you, we have no idea what it sees. That’s because the mantis shrimp possesses one of the most complex eyeballs on the planet, an organ that allows it to perceive a rainbow of colors in both the visible and ultraviolet spectrum without the massive brainpower required for human vision,” so writes Julia Rosen of the Los Angeles Times.

Rosen’s story, Mantis shrimp wear tinted shades to see UV light, tells of Tom Cronin and Michael Bok’s paper. Cronin is a professor of biology and Bok a graduate student who has now moved on to a post doc at Lund University.

The paper, which was recently published in the journal, Current Biology, reported that, “that that mantis shrimp use a set of filters to separate ultraviolet light into discrete colors that get picked up by the animals’ photoreceptors.”

Karan Odom and Kevin Omland, Biological Sciences, Make Headlines for Bird Song Research

Karan Odom and Kevin Omland, biological sciences, recently made headlines around the world with a Nature Communications article that challenges the assumption that bird song is an exclusively male trait resulting from sexual selection.

Odom, a Ph.D. student in Omland’s lab, led a team of researchers from UMBC, the University of Melbourne in Australia, Leiden University in the Netherlands and the Australian National University in this groundbreaking work. The researchers completed an extensive global study of songbirds and found that 71% of songbirds surveyed had female song. They also mapped the traits of female song onto an evolutionary tree, which revealed that the common ancestor of modern songbirds also had female song.

These findings raise questions about Darwin’s understanding of bird song. Mike Webster, director of the Macaulay Library at the Cornell Lab of Ornithology, explains, “The standard thinking is that competition for mates has led to the evolution of bright colors and loud songs in males, whereas selection for avoidance of predators has led to females that are cryptically colored and relatively quiet. This study by Odom et al. stands this view on its head by showing that singing females are actually quite widespread, and also that females sang in the ancestor of all modern songbirds.”

Odom says this research opens the door for exploring alternative evolutionary scenarios and processes that Darwin might not have considered with regard to the evolution of bird song.

Coverage of the study has already appeared in outlets from the BBC World Service Newshour [jump to 48:20], to Germany’s Der Spiegel, to Australia’s ABC Radio National. Additional news links are included below, and we will continue adding links as new coverage appears.

Additional Coverage:
Female Song Birds Turn Darwin’s Theory Upside Down (WYPR)
Not Just Males: Common Ancestor Of Modern Songbirds Had Female Song (Science 2.0)
Sing a song of bird phylogeny (ScienceNews)
Prominence of Female Birdsong Challenges Evolutionary Theory (Nature World News)
Bird song – it’s not just a male gig (
Birdsong is not all about sexual selection: Female birds sing much more often than previously thought (Science Daily)
Female Song Birds Do Sing And Charles Darwin Got It Wrong (Business Insider)
Delightful duets prove Darwin slightly off-key over birdsong (Canberra Times)
Female birds sing songs as sweetly (Australian Life Scientist)
According to the study of ANU: Female birds song is different from males (Periscope Post)
Darwin wrong about the birds and bees (The Times)
Female birds rival males in bird song: ANU study (Xinhua)
Vogelgesang ist keine Männerdomäne (Die Welt and Berliner Morgenpost)
Bird Song Almost as Common in Female Birds as in Males: Study (Newspoint Africa)
Female birds sing songs: Was Charles Darwin wrong? (Zee News)
Bird song not exclusively male trait, reports say (The Hindu)
Evolution: Female songbirds make themselves heard (Nature Asia)
Keine “Männerdomäne” – Auch Vogelweibchen singen (Schweizerbauer)
Ganz Was Neues: Vogel Weibchen Können Singen (
Viele Vogelweibchen singen (Weser Kurier)
Emanzipierte Vogelweibchen (Achtung, Wolf!)
Vogel tjilpt om gebied te verdedigen (en dus niet om vrouwtjes te lokken) (Volkskrant)
Auch die Weibchen singen (Wiener Zeitung)
A tojók is rendszeresen énekelnek (Index)
Veel vrouwtjesvogels zingen ook (NRC)
Vrouwelijke zangvogels hebben veel meer noten op hun zang dan gedacht (Scientias)
Vrouwelijke zangvogel zingt vaker dan gedacht (NU)
Vrouwtjesvogels zingen veel vaker dan gedacht (University of Leiden)
Vrouwtjesvogels blijken toch te zingen (Wetenschap 24)
Weibchen trällern meist so schön wie Männchen (Deutschlandfunk)