Biology department to hire conservation biologist

Next semester, students can expect to see a new face in the halls of the biology department. In the coming months, a search committee headed by associate professor of biology Nick Kaplinsky will finalize the hiring of an assistant professor who will specialize in the rapidly expanding field of conservation biology. Conservation biology is a unique multidisciplinary study of biodiversity which aims to understand human impact on the environment and to develop practical solutions to maintain ecosystems around the world.

Throughout the last several years, the biology department has dealt with over-enrollment issues and an increase in declared biology majors. Demographics of the Class of 2017 reveal that biology is one of the most popular disciplines that the freshman class listed as a likely major and the biology department expects that the high numbers will be maintained over the next years.

“Hiring new faculty members will help us handle these enrollments and keep class sizes small,” Kaplinsky said. “It will also allow us to continue to provide meaningful research opportunities involving close collaboration between faculty and students.”

According to the official advertisement for the tenure-track position, outside research with Swarthmore students will be a major teaching responsibility for the new assistant professor. At the moment, the biology department visualizes the new professor offering an advanced research seminar related to his or her field of interest, as well as leading a one-semester course in conservation biology and contributing to lectures in the team-taught introductory course Organismal and Population Biology (BIOL 002).

The exact types of courses that the conservation biologist will teach, however, will remain unknown until the search committee completes the selection process and allows the new professor to design his/her own curriculum.

“We try to give new faculty as much freedom as possible to teach to their strengths,” Kaplinsky said. “So if they were to end up doing something different from what we had envisioned we would fully support them.”

Kaplinsky also explained that the popularity of environmental activism among many Swarthmore students was a factor in the decision to hire a conservation biologist rather a biologist working within another field of study.

“We always consider what our students are interested in and excited about when making decisions like this,” Kaplinsky said.

The environmental studies department was directly involved in the selection process. Kaplinsky noted that members of the staff teaching classes which fall under the interdisciplinary minor worked on the search.

“The needs of the environmental studies minor certainly influenced this decision,” Kaplinsky said.  He also cited the importance of conservation biology as an emerging field and its integration of disciplines outside the sciences — such as political science, sociology, and Economics — as justifications for the selection. Kaplinsky expect that the new

Similar to Kaplinsky, biology professor Rachel Merz also cited student interest as one reason she was pleased with the decision to hire a conservation biologist.

“You’re a biologist and you study systems, and you start to see that many of [these systems] are being threatened. It’s not unusual to want to protect them,” she said. “Many Swarthmore alumni have entered the field [of conservation biology], and it makes sense to offer them classes in subjects about which they are clearly excited.”

Merz also mentioned the practicality of conservation biology, remarking that it has “more of an applied side” than other fields of biology sometimes do, as conservation biologists work to solve direct problems “not necessarily in an academic way.” Merz also views the hiring of a conservation biologist as a necessary step in diversifying the biology department.

“It’s cardinal that we have a balance. We have a wide variety of people asking questions about different levels of biological organization. A new faculty member will only add to this diversity,” she said.

Amy Vollmer, the chair of the biology department, referred to the extensive process for hiring or replacing a faculty member as “very formal,” and noted that the biology department amassed vast data on current and expected enrollment before submitting a request to the college to begin its search.

“Our department’s application to the Provost for each of our previous requests for a faculty search were about 25 pages long,” Vollmer said.

The department has been advertising the position for several months now on websites for academic job listings and in person at  Conservation Biology conventions.

“Response to the position was strong and yielded a large and very impressive pool of applicants,” Kaplinsky said.

Student response has been positive to the new hiring. Senior biology major Aarthi Reddy ’14 hopes that the new hire will rectify some of the over enrollment issues that have plagued the biology department throughout her four years at Swarthmore by increasing the number of available classes.

Lulu Allen Waller ’17, a prospective biology major and environmental studies minor, lauded the department’s choice.

“As someone very concerned about environmental issues, I’m especially excited to take classes that reflect my activist interests. It’s very important that the college ‘walks the walk’ — we have this reputation for activism, and now that activism is being reflected in the hiring process,” Allen-Waller said. “In almost no other area of biology have people been so outspoken about their passion. Regardless of your interests, there’s something about conservation that inspires people to activism. The college is definitely listening to their students.”

This hiring marks the beginning of a series of changes that the biology department hopes to see over the next several years. The department anticipates the college’s construction of a new building to house the biology, engineering, and psychological departments, and also expects that several staff members will retire or go on sabbatical, thus necessitating replacement.

As far as the immediate future, the department has also requested the college’s permission to hire a systems biologist. The conservation biologist whom the search committee selects should begin work starting in the next academic year.

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