Wilson Professor Shares Her Enthusiasm for Research with Students

Laura Altfeld, Wilson College associate professor of biology, has a passion for ants. She likes them so much that she received a Paul Swain Havens Research Award last year to do a pilot study of ant biodiversity in south-central Pennsylvania.

“Ants have been on earth tens of millions of years, and they are pretty sophisticated in terms of their behaviors and their chemistry and their interactions with other organisms,” Altfeld said.

Specifically, Altfeld is exploring the roles and types of ants in local urban, agricultural and forested ecosystems. “I go out and I trap ants. I bring them back to the lab, and I identify them to get a sense of how these three ecosystems compare with one another,” she said. “For instance, what effect does irrigating, fertilizing and putting plants in the ground have on ants in farmland areas? What types of ants are present in the Borough of Chambersburg? What types of ants are present in forests, which are less impacted by people?”

Altfeld frequently takes students along to teach them techniques for data collection, as well as for preparing, preserving and identifying specimens once back in the laboratory. She hopes to get additional funding from the National Science Foundation so she can expand the project and hire student research interns in the summer. “What I’m excited about is doing research that I can engage students in,” she said.

A native of south Florida, Altfeld spent her childhood outdoors, “barefoot and exploring stuff.” As an undergraduate at Eckerd College, she studied marine biology but switched to ecology as a doctoral candidate at the University of South Florida. “I’m really fascinated by interactions between species,” she said. “That’s where I found my niche.”

As a visiting assistant professor at Eckerd, she discovered another niche that felt right—teaching. When a position opened at Wilson in 2008, it felt like the perfect fit.

“The college connects with my own mission,” said Altfeld. “There is a special place in my heart for promoting women in science, and the courses I teach—ecology, conservation biology, marine biology, research techniques—are the courses I want to teach.”

Altfeld is particularly adept at helping students design and carry out their own research projects—an opportunity she says is unique at Wilson.

“At most other schools you do research by invitation. It’s not required,” she said. “We require all of our students to do research. It’s how they get a degree in biology, chemistry or biochemistry from Wilson College. They take what they’re interested in, read in the literature about what the current state of the field is, and then design a study to fill the gap of knowledge in a particular area. So students come up with novel research questions that they can then focus on and be the ‘expert’ in the room on.”

At Wilson, research is a three-semester process. After students decide on their research question, faculty members help them develop a proposal.

“We encourage them to submit their proposal to the Pennsylvania Academy of Sciences (PAS) for funding so they learn about the grant process,” Altfeld said. “Then they conduct their research and analyze their data. In the last semester, the expectation is that they have to present it to PAS. They submit their abstract and if the abstract is approved, then they’ll present at the meeting.”

In April, nine seniors traveled with Altfeld and other faculty members in the Physical and Life Sciences Division to the annual PAS meeting in Pittsburgh. Three of them received funding for their projects.

Altfeld takes pride in the knowledge that Wilson graduates are well-equipped for independent research. “We give our students opportunities that they can’t get other places, particularly the personalized mentoring through the research process,” she said. “We guide them the entire way so if they do go on to graduate school, they will already know what to do and they won’t need the same kind of guidance to get through it.”

But not all research takes place at Wilson. During the 2013 January-Term, Altfeld led an expedition of nine students, funded in part by travel-abroad scholarships, to study rain forests, mangrove islands, seagrass beds and coral reefs in Belize. With its diversity of ecosystems and cultures, it is the ideal place for field studies, including the study of how culture influences conservation. It was the second time she had taken students to Belize and the course — which is also open to alumnae — has been so successful, she plans to run it every two years.

In 2011, the year before she was granted tenure, Altfeld was recognized with the Donald F. Bletz Teaching Award for her efforts both in and out of the classroom.

“Sometimes I’m extremely geeky, so my students know I’m not bored with the information,” she laughed. “I can’t help but think that passion and enthusiasm is contagious. I also think I’m a good communicator. I try to use metaphor as much as I can to take some complex mechanism and describe it in terms that students might already have a frame of reference for. I think that’s my strength — communicating complex information in different ways so a group of students can all understand.”

Talk to any of her students and they name other qualities that have inspired them.

“Dr. Altfeld is a great professor,” said senior Ovsanna Movsesyan, who plans to study anesthesiology in medical school. “She’s a very positive person, very organized and patient. I really enjoy working with her (and it is clear) she loves her job.”

Rachael Kinley, who will begin studies in environmental law this fall, attributes the confidence she felt when presenting her research at PAS to Altfeld, who served as her primary research adviser. “She was judging another session at the time I presented, but she ran to and from my auditorium to hear me speak, and I was grateful for that dedication,” Kinley said.

Altfeld credits the new Brooks Science Complex with giving her the physical tools to teach. “The rooms that I get to teach in are wonderful,” she said. “As an ecologist, I’m proud that this is a LEED-certified building.” LEED stands for Leadership in Energy and Environmental Design.

Four years at Wilson have convinced Altfeld that the College is not only the right fit for her, but also for her students.

“This is an extraordinary place to come study science and, if science doesn’t work as a major, there are so many other things they can choose,” said Altfeld. “Students can find themselves when they are here.”