From the Chair

Behzad Mortazavi
Dr. Behzad Mortazavi

Excitement for the start of the 2021-2022 academic year is palpable all around campus. Students are happy to be back on campus and working in the labs with our faculty. I am really proud of the way our faculty quickly adapted teaching and research activities during the last year to minimize the impact of the pandemic on our students. We have learned new skills for teaching and for carrying out our research, and we continue to proactively manage our operations so as to minimize the impact of the Delta variant on our students and our research. Despite the challenges we’ve faced, our faculty have been successful in securing funding and recruiting graduate students into our program. We start the year with 115 graduate students, a record number of graduate students enrolled in our program.

In the past year, several faculty received awards for their contributions to the mission of the university. Dr. Laura Reed was recognized by the College of Arts & Sciences as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow, and Dr. Kevin Kocot received the 2021 President’s Faculty Research Award in the Emerging Scholar category in the area of Physical and Biological Sciences, Mathematics, and Engineering. In addition, Dr. Jason Pienaar received the prestigious Career Award from the National Science Foundation.  The success of our faculty in generating a diversified range of funding is leading to cutting edge research on a wide range of subjects including drug discovery to combat neurodegenerative diseases, stream ecology, biodiversity, and evolutionary studies. Throughout this newsletter you will learn more about their research.

We also continue to be proud of our undergraduate students, who have used innovative approaches to remain engaged with the community even during the pandemic. They taught virtual science lessons alongside teachers in our public schools and performed hands-on experiments using real-time ZOOM sessions and through self-made teaching videos. Local students learned about topics such as edible DNA, zoology, and plant biology. I encourage you to read more about this award-winning program led by biology instructor Jeanna Yates, who started this effort in 2008 and now serves over 1000 students in our schools each year.

This year we welcome four new faculty members: Dr. Arial Shogren, Dr. Ben Titus, Dr. Melanie Higgins, and Dr. Jon Sin. Dr. Arial Shogren studied stream ecology at The University of Notre Dame, where she earned her Ph.D. in Biological Sciences. Most recently, she was a postdoctoral scientist at Michigan State University and was funded by a National Science Foundation Postdoctoral Research Fellowship in Biology. Dr. Ben Titus received his Ph.D. in the Dept. of Evolution, Ecology, and Organismal Biology at The Ohio State University. After earning his Ph.D., he was a Gerstner Scholar & Lerner Gray Postdoctoral Fellow in the Dept. of Invertebrate Zoology at the American Museum of Natural History in New York, and he spent last year as a Marie Curie Postdoctoral Fellow at the University of Lausanne in Switzerland. Dr. Melanie Higgins received her Ph.D. in the Department of Biochemistry & Microbiology at the University of Victoria, Canada, and went on to be the Natural Science and Engineering Research Council of Canada Postdoctoral Fellow Researcher at the School of Molecular & Biomedical Science at the Univ. of Adelaide, Australia, and the Michael Smith Foundation for Health Research Postdoctoral Fellow in the Department of Chemistry at the University of British Columbia, Canada. Dr. Jon Sin earned his PhD in Cell and Molecular Biology at San Diego State University/University of California, San Diego Joint Doctoral Program in 2013. He was an Assistant Professor at Cedars-Sinai Medical Center and is a virologist with specialties in mitochondrial and cardiac biology.

The Department is grateful to the many donors who have contributed to our scholarship funds. Many of our students have been awarded scholarships, and they are listed later in the newsletter. If you are interested in supporting our students by contributing to these funds, please contact us by email at or by phone at 205-348-9810.

Finally, we are always happy to engage with prospective students, current students, and alumni! If you are considering becoming an undergraduate or a graduate student or are interested in learning about what we are doing in the department, I encourage you to visit our website, send me an email, or give me a call. I am always excited to share what is happening in our department. I would love to hear from you!

Dr. Behzad Mortazavi
Professor and Department Chair
Department of Biological Sciences