Out of the Classroom and Into the Black River

Jennifer Schmidt

Jennifer Schmidt at the microscope. Photo courtesy UIC News

My research on animals large and small has taken me around the world. My role as a teacher, mentor and faculty coordinator for the Department of Biological Sciences’s Biology Colloquium (BCQ) takes me to the Ozarks of Missouri, the Mammoth Caves of Kentucky, and many places in between when Clinical Assistant Professor Karin Nelson and I guide groups of aspiring scientists as they explore the wealth of career opportunities available to those with a biology degree.

Since BCQ was founded 15 years ago, its goal has been to provide undergraduates the opportunity to earn course credit while exploring the diverse fields and career opportunities that await them. While most BCQ students are biology majors, the course also draws students from chemistry, psychology and other LAS departments. Students in their first and second years enroll for up to two semesters in BIOS 196, a once-weekly interactive class that alternates group seminars by biologists in different fields with field trips to institutions that offer potential career opportunities.

In recent years, BCQ students have viewed the ornithology collection at the Field Museum, gone behind the scenes at the Shedd Aquarium, and visited the UIC College of Pharmacy. Students are directed in small groups by several BCQ alumni who take the responsibility of arranging field trips for their groups and act as mentors for the younger undergraduates. The department offers two sections of BIOS 196 each semester, serving nearly 150 students per year.

One of the highlights of the BCQ academic year is a fall-semester weekend field trip to Saukville, Wisconsin to visit the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee Field Station at Cedarburg Bog. The field station occupies a portion of one of the few remaining peat bogs in the area, and offers an opportunity to study the unique ecosystem. Students take hikes through the bog (which is outfitted with boardwalks to avoid damaging the fragile habitat) and learn about its unique plants and animals, such as the rare Lady’s Slipper orchid. There is ample down-time as well, filled with night hikes through the woods and bonfires in the chill October air. An on-site farmhouse sleeps faculty and some of the students, while others choose to camp on the grounds.

The real adventure happens in the spring, during the week following graduation. Groups of 25-50 BCQ students, faculty and advisors pile into university vans and travel to Midwestern biological field stations such as the Ford Field Station in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula and the Mountain Lake Biological Station at Mammoth Caves in Kentucky.

Students and faculty at colloquium site

Biology students at the Reis Station

This past May, we visited Reis Biological Station in the Ozark Mountains of southeastern Missouri. Reis, which is operated by the St. Louis University Department of Biology, is surrounded by national and state parks. In the spring it is a Mecca for wildlife observers of all kinds. As per BCQ ritual, we left campus roughly three hours behind schedule after the usual chaos of renting vans from the motor pool, loading luggage, organizing students into travel groups, and making certain everyone had a map. Finally, we were off for our eight-hour drive!  

For the BCQ trips, teams of BCQ students do all the planning, shopping, cooking and cleaning, leaving faculty to concentrate on supervising the (somewhat) controlled chaos. After making the long drive with minimal stops and a brief lunch, everyone arrived in Missouri tired and very hungry. The team assigned to cook that first evening quickly got to work turning out dinner for the famished crowd. BCQ food is rarely fancy, tending towards pasta and taco nights, but occasional culinary gems emerge from the cultural and ethnic mix of the BCQ students—and the cooking skills of a few of the students are legendary!

Students crossing river

Biology students navigate a rocky river hike.

During our week at Reis we visited several parks in the region; the unquestionable highlight was Johnson Shut-Ins State Park. At this beautiful site on the Black River we learned that the term “shut-in” refers to a place where a river is narrowed into a gorge with tall cliffs on either side. This narrowing creates rapids and waterfalls that cascade over and around boulders that were dislodged from the cliffs during past flash floods. In places where the rocks slow the water’s flow there are pools for swimming, and the students spent hours climbing over the rocks and wading through the shallows. After a picnic lunch, we hiked a short but very steep trail that climbed through an oak and hickory forest to reveal expansive mountain views.

Another day we drove to Elephant Rocks State Park, which features enormous granite boulders released from the mountains by volcanic activity and smoothed by millennia of weathering. The park’s name comes from the appearance of the rocks at a distance, which is said to resemble a train of elephants. The boulders are perfect for climbing, and the students formed a sort of human conveyor belt to get even the smaller individuals to the top. Small depressions left in the rock fill with water and serve as temporary breeding grounds for frogs and toads, and these small pools are often filled with hundreds of tadpoles. Birds and other creatures abound in the nearby forest; we found scarlet tanagers in the trees and five-lined skinks in and around the rocks.

Our last full day at Reis was reserved for canoeing on Huzzah Creek. This was both a learning experience for many students and a source of endless amusement for the faculty. Among the group we had some expert canoers who quickly made the winding journey, as well as newbies who managed to devise novel methods for moving their boats downstream. With that dynamic end to the week, the students spent Sunday morning packing, cleaning the station, and loading the vehicles for the drive back to Chicago. Another BCQ trip was successfully completed and a great time was had by all.

Each year, we add to the list of legendary moments from the BCQ semester. BCQ provides an excellent opportunity for students of the sciences to shift gears from the traditional academic setting and engage in hands-on exploration of the professional world that awaits them. We hear from former students many years down the road that they still remember their BCQ experiences.

All location photos courtesy of Jennifer Schmidt