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Undergraduate Research/Teaching

Teaching and Research Assistant Positions at Duke

For 2003-04, I was a teaching assistant for Duke University's introductory biology course, Bio 25L (The Science of Life). In fall 2003 I had a total of 23 students in 2 sections, and in Spring 2004 I had another batch of 23 students. I tried to teach them how biology isn't just a course to pass, but is part of their life, community, and identity. I was given material I had to teach, but there weren't any stipulations on how I had to teach it, so I tried to tie biology in with other subjects and life experiences students may have had. By the end of my first semester, I felt that students gained not only a great appreciation for biology, but a view of themselves as part of the great scheme of life that has evolved on Earth, and to be more conscious of their everyday actions as forces that will shape the future evolution of life.

I also worked as a research assistant in Sonke Johnsen's visual ecology/biophysics lab. From summer 2003-spring 2004 I did mainly two things: maintain the lab's saltwater aquarium and take irradiance spectra for an ongoing project to measure natural skylight. I found that if the sky brightness was held constant throughout the day, the average sky color changes from a yellow-green during the day, through a blue at dawn/dusk, and finally moves to an orange during the night.

About the Johnsen Lab

I applied to Duke's biology department in 2003-04 but didn't get in (the 100+ applicants and only 8 spots problem). However, I did earn an NSF Graduate Fellowship, which should help me with getting admitted in 2004-05. Competition seems to be incredibly high here at Duke University.

Sonke Johnsen has a wonderfully small and open visual ecology/biophysics lab with one graduate student, Alison Sweeney. This year she studied how butterflies see mating signals via polarized light, and has now moved on to studying the relationship between lens crystallin structure and transparency. Sonke studies anything having to do with visual ecology, though his primary focus now is transparency of marine organisms.

For those of you who love the sea or who want to study some how some really strange creatures see or use light, this is the lab for you. There is a 55 gallon saltwater aquarium that houses cold tidepool animals such as anemones (genus Anthopleura), brittlestars, sea urchins (Strongylocentrotus droebachiensis and S. purpuratus), and sea cucumbers (genus Parastichopus). The aquarium also contains limpets, hundreds of tiny shrimplike amphipods, and feather worms that build leatherlike tubes around their slender bodies.

An independent project I worked on from summer 2003 to spring 2004 involved measuring how the color of skylight changes over 24 hours. Colors were obtained from irradiance spectra, irradiance meaning the total light energy of all visible wavelengths impinging on a detector from all directions. Through several spreadsheets and hours at the computer, the irradiance information was converted to actual colors. The sky might look pitch-black to us, but nocturnal (night-active) animals such as hawkmoths are sensitive enough to the incoming starlight that they can use it to find food. This whole project started because scientists were interested in knowing what kind of light nocturnal animals were seeing with.

Oh yes...if you're curious, we found that the color of starlight on a clear, moonless night is orange.


Click here to visit our lab's website that I built in the summer of 2003.

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