From the Chair

Behzad Mortazavi
Dr. Behzad Mortazavi

I am delighted to share news about the recent expansion of our departmental research foci. Last year our proposal for a cluster faculty hire in Neurosciences was enthusiastically approved by the College and the Provost. We conducted an extensive search, and this Fall we welcomed our first new neuroscience faculty member. Dr. Atuyla Iyengar joined UA from the University of Iowa where he was a post-doctoral researcher. His research focuses on identifying key genetic and physiological processes that promote resilient motor circuit function. In the Spring, Dr. Nicole Ackermans will join us from the Icahn School of Medicine at Mount Sinai in New York where she is a post-doctoral researcher investigating traumatic brain injury (TBI) in headbutting animals as a model for chronic TBI in humans. We will continue to expand our neuroscience group with another faculty hire this year. We are truly excited about the contributions that this group of faculty will bring to our research and education mission.

This Fall we also welcomed Dr. Steven Thomas as our next Bishop Professor in Aquatic Biology. Dr. Thomas joins us from the University of Nebraska where he was a professor in the School of Natural Resources. Dr. Thomas is a prominent aquatic scientist and currently the president of the Society for Freshwater Science; the largest international organization that promotes further understanding of freshwater ecosystems and ecosystems at the interface between aquatic and terrestrial habitats. Dr. Terry McGinn will join us next Spring from the Nebraska Wesleyan University where she was an associate professor and department chair. Dr. McGinn research experience is in microbiology and virology, and she has extensive teaching experience in the fields of microbiology and molecular & cellular biology. Dr. Finger joined the department as an assistant professor. Dr. Finger was previously at Auburn University with expertise in environmental toxicology and immunotoxicology. His research focuses on how anthropogenic stressors impact the physiology of turtles and alligators. Dr. Jayne Lampley also joined us as an assistant professor and will take the helm at the Arboretum as its Director. Dr. Lampley was most recently investigating habitat and land-use change utilizing NASA earth observations to inform conservation efforts. Her research focuses on the evolutionary history, distribution, and chemistry of native herbaceous plants. Dr. Lampley in her role as the Director plans to expand the research and community engagement at the Arboretum in the coming years. Make sure you look at the Arboretum webpage for the latest news.

This past year we had several faculty who were recognized for their contributions and achievements. Dr. Laura Reed was recognized as the thirty-first winner of the UA Blackmon-Moody Outstanding Professor award. This is the university’s highest distinction given to a faculty member in recognition for their exceptional work. Dr. Michael McKain received the 2022 Alumni Outstanding Commitment to Teaching award from the National Alumni Association. Dr. Kaleb Heinrich was selected as a Distinguished Teaching Fellow in the College of Arts & Sciences. Dr. Matthew Jenny received the College’s Leadership Board’s Outstanding Commitment to Students award. Dr. Greg Starr was selected as the 2022 Distinguished Alabama Water Institute Faculty Fellow in recognition for outstanding contributions to research and education programs that significantly advance UA’s interdisciplinary water-related communities of science. We are so proud of the achievements of our colleagues!

Our faculty have had an exceptional year with funding from multiple federal and state agencies. Dr. Kaleb Heinrich and his collaborators at Portland State University, Oregon State University, Georgia State University, and University of California, Irvine received a $2,883,565I award from the National Science Foundation. This award titled “Evolving the culture of biology: promoting graduate teaching assistant professional development to foster inclusion, efficacy, and evidence-based practices” focuses on developing new training approaches for graduate teaching assistants to engage in intentional, inclusive, evidence-based teaching practices in Biology.

Dr. Ciesla is lead investigator on a recent National Institute of Health award. His team along with Dr. Chtarbanova and Dr. Maitra will be testing the effectiveness of dietary supplements developed by their colleagues at Oregon Health & Science University for ameliorating acute and age-related neuroinflammation. Dr. Olson was funded by the Environmental Protection Agency to trace biological contaminants in the Mobile Basin. Dr. Hoadley received funding from GCOOS to establish Mobile Bay as one of the sites used for monitoring the occurrences of harmful agal blooms. Dr. Kocot, along with his collaborators, was funded by the Alabama Center of Excellence to develop a framework to use meiofaunal communities as indicators of short-term disturbances and long-term changing environmental conditions along the Alabama coast. Whether biomedical or environmental research in and around Alabama or across the globe our faculty are conducting impactful research and providing opportunities for our undergraduate students to engage in research in our labs and our graduate students to pursue research that will lead to their degrees.

Together with the College of Arts and Sciences we have made significant investments in our research infrastructure. We have acquired a multiphoton confocal microscope that will provide new research opportunities in neuroscience in the department and at UA. We were able to fund the construction of a research greenhouse at the UA Arboretum. The 3700 sq ft facility is split into three equally sized bays to allow for a diversity in growing conditions. The greenhouse has already supported the dissertations of three Ph.D. students and theses of two master’s students in its first year of operation. We are looking forward to expanding this infrastructure and growing our Botany and Plant Ecology research group within the coming years. If you are visiting Tuscaloosa, we will be happy to arrange a tour for you to see the diversity of research and show you some of the unique plants at the facility.

We are also continuing to expand our engagement with the greater Tuscaloosa community and throughout the State of Alabama. In Fall 2019 the graduate students formed the Conservation Biology Society with the goal promoting grassroots movements for local conservation efforts and I am truly impressed with their dedications over the past couple of years. They have led several biodiversity surveys in and across northern Alabama, and with the help of the community they have organized efforts that have led to the removal significant amounts of debris from the nearby ecosystems. Students in our Biology Outreach course continue to create hands-on science lessons that they teach to local K-12 students each spring and summer semester. During the 2022 spring semester, 28 students served 224 community service hours by teaching 140 K-12 students at The Boys-and-Girls Club of West Alabama. We continue our work with students so that they can become effective science communicators and to expose students to various careers in STEM fields.

This past summer we welcomed the first cohort of undergraduate students as part of Re-IMAGiNE (Integrating Mechanisms of Adaptation with Genes in Networks and across Environments) Life: an NSF Funded Summer Research Experience for Undergraduates that is led by Dr Julie Olson and Dr. Michael McKain. This NSF-REU award provided funding for a cohort of 10 students to our join our department in various research labs over a 10 week period this summer. We will bring in two more cohorts the next two summers. With our commitment to providing students with access to cutting-edge research in STEM fields and beyond, Dr. Olson and Dr. McKain are providing amazing opportunities to improve undergraduate research experiences in our department.

The Department of Biological Sciences has benefited from the record-breaking freshman enrollment UA has experienced. This resulted in the largest number of incoming students enrolling in our freshman majors introductory biology course. In the fall of 2021, the Department of Biological Sciences experienced a 12.5% increase in enrollment for our BSC 114 Principles of Biology I course. During the 2021-2022 academic year, the department supported 1,928 undergraduate majors and 119 graduate students, while also awarding 295 bachelor’s degrees, 20 master’s degrees and 4 doctoral degrees. During this time, the department also supported 692 undergraduate minors from our five different minor’s programs and awarded 165 minors to graduating seniors. This fall also marks a record enrollment of students with 8,542 students, a more than 2% increase from last year. Many of these students will benefit from your generosity and support of our scholarship funds. 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