Story in the College of Arts & Sciences
Associate Professor, Biology
Bio professor studies beetles side-by-side with undergrad students to find ways to mitigate climate change.
Elizabeth Dahlhoff scopes the slopes of the high Sierras for beetles. “I have always been interested in how animals handle rapid environmental change,” says this SCU biology professor. But now it is urgent. “We need to understand the implications of climate change for the natural world, and what humans can do to mitigate its effects.”
But why, of all animals, does she choose to study insects on terra firma?
Well, with insects, the effective population could be the size of a room. “So we can see the differences in the way they adapt to little changes in the environment over very short distances, as opposed to studying the entire continent,” Dahlhoff explains. “And changes can happen really fast in these small, isolated populations.”
Dahlhoff has been tracking Sierra willow beetles for 15 years with her collaborator Nathan Rank of Sonoma State University. “We have samples in the deep freeze from the 1980s,” she says. “And we know what happened to the climate in the last 20 years, so we can go back and see what beetles were like then, and how their genes have changed over time.”
Dahlhoff works with undergraduate students at the White Mountain Research Station in the Sierra Nevada during summer and in her lab at SCU during the academic year, collecting and analyzing data. “We do fieldwork for anywhere between one to three months each summer. Our students get to interact with researchers from all over the world,” tells Dahlhoff. “But probably the best thing is that they get exposure to doing research in nature.”
Students get up at 6 a.m. and collect data all day long. Sometimes, they backpack into remote areas for days. “At Santa Clara, we’re about helping students find their vocation--and when these students are surrounded by peaks rising up to 14,000 feet, and they have a moment of quiet, they think ‘What am I here for?’ It speaks to them,” says Dahlhoff.
The other part of their experiential learning comes from Dahlhoff’s hands-off approach.“I cut them loose and let them flounder,” she says. “I really try to stay out of their way and yet provide support. I give them the responsibility to fail and then the opportunity to succeed on their own.”
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