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Chelsea Blake '08 is one of two recent graduates to earn National Science Foundation fellowships for 2013.

Alumni Earn National Science Foundation Fellowships

April 08, 2013

Two recent Earlham graduates have earned prestigious graduate fellowships from the National Science Foundation. Chelsea Blake ’08 — a second year graduate student at Texas State University (San Marcos, Texas) — and Christopher “Topher” Weiss-Lehman ’10 — a second year graduate student at the University of Colorado at Boulder — will each receive funding for the next three years to support their research.

Predators and Prey

Blake is exploring the effects of invasive predator species on native prey species, an area of inquiry that allows her to combine her interests in behavioral ecology and conservation. She is studying the Largespring mosquitofish, a species endemic to the cold springs of central Texas, and the Rio Grande cichlid, a predator fish that was introduced to the region because it is an attractive species that is popular with fishermen.

She is planning a future project that will look for connections between the morphology (or body shape) and behavior in fish.

“I know it sounds a little far-fetched, but there is some evidence that there is a connection between the two. I want to see if individuals that have more muscle mass and longer tails also display bolder behavior.”

Blake, a biology major in her undergraduate days, came to Earlham intending to become a veterinarian. She discovered a passion for ecology and credits experiential, field-based courses — especially those taught by Professor of Biology Brent Smith and Biology Research Professor Leslie Bishop — for helping to chart her course. Her current work builds on the hands-on scientific skills she learned at Earlham.

“Some days I’m out in the field, getting dirty and gathering specimens that we will keep in tanks at the university. Other days I’m spending long hours at my computer, analyzing data from behavioral experiments.

“The great thing about the courses at Earlham is that they give students real experiments to do, as opposed to busy work,” she says. “They made me feel like a real scientist.”

Blake also notes that two off-campus experiences — a semester in Tanzania and a May Term in Ghana — solidified her interest in key scientific questions.

“In both those countries, you can see the effects of climate change very clearly. Both those experiences gave me a better idea of what these changes will look like, and how they are going to affect some people more than others.

Can Invasive Species Help Us?

Topher Weiss-Lehman '10Weiss-Lehman is also studying invasive species, but through a theoretical lens. His current project involves building mathematical models to study the effects of introducing invasive species into microbial systems. This work could lead to new medical treatments using invasive microbes to combat disease.

“These sorts of treatments have already proved successful, but we don’t know yet why they work,” he says.

At Colorado, Weiss-Lehman is part of the first cohort of students in a new program in interdisciplinary quantitative biology. During their first year, he and his fellow students rotated through various labs at the university so they learn about the diversity of approaches to scientific inquiry.

Weiss-Lehman’s own work draws on his passions of mathematics and ecology, both of which grew during his Earlham years.

“I came to college thinking I would major in mathematics, but when I took Ecological Biology with Bill Buskirk, I was hooked. That course got me thinking about the underlying questions of biology in ways that hadn’t occurred to me before.”

He also worked closely with Assistant Professor of Biology Chris Smith and spent a summer working for Tom Mitchell-Olds ’78, who runs a plant genetics research lab at Duke University.

“I was able to complete three or four complete research projects as an Earlham student, and I got a summer job in a laboratory thanks to Earlham connections. Those things were excellent preparation for the work I am doing now.”

Science at Earlham

Earlham College is taking steps to build on its legacy of providing top-notch scientific education. Stanley Hall is currently under renovation and will open in the fall of 2013. The renovated building will facilitate the type of interdisciplinary collaboration that is the bedrock of 21st century scientific research. New facilities planned in the coming years will provide improved facilities for teaching, learning and research in the sciences.

The College remains committed to providing opportunities for field based scientific research. In addition to class trips to natural areas near campus, Earlham supports student-faculty research at field sites all over the world — from biology in the Bahamas and Ecuador to geology in Armenia and Japan. These research opportunities help make Earlham a top producer of future Ph.D.s.

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