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LectureHop: What Does Cell Biology Have To Do With Saving Pollinators?

I’ll be honest: This aesthetically pleasing poster was part of the reason I decided to attend this lecture.

This Tuesday, staff writer (and honey bee fanatic) Jake Tibbetts had a bee-rrific time traveling to the other side of Broadway to listen to Dr. Jonathan Snow, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Barnard College, deliver a lecture about his research on the ways that honey bees respond to stress on the cellular level and about his attempts to connect cell biology to topics related to sustainability. In this piece, Tibbetts writes about his experience sitting in on a science lecture that even a humanities geek like himself could understand, learn from, and appreciate.

As a sociology and political science student, I don’t often find myself attending STEM lectures after classes wrap up for the day, regardless of how many opportunities there are here in Morningside Heights to learn more about the most pressing scientific issues of our time. As a die-hard fan of Jerry Seinfeld’s 2007 computer animated comedy film Bee Movie, however, I do take special notice when events centered around everyone’s favorite pollinators take place.

When I found out that Dr. Jonathan Snow, an assistant professor of biological sciences at Barnard College and a man who is perhaps just as passionate about bees as I am, would be delivering a lecture on Tuesday evening titled “What Does Cell Biology Have to Do with Saving Pollinators?”, I knew that, despite knowing very little about cell biology (or, to be honest, the process of pollination itself), I would need to stop by—and I’m quite glad that I did.

This talk, the third in the Barnard Noyce Teacher Scholars Program’s Current Issues in STEM Education colloquium series, was held in a large classroom on the fifth floor of the Diana Center and began at 6:30 pm. After Professor Snow, who has taught at Barnard since 2012, was introduced by someone from the Scholars Program, he dived right into his talk, aided by a slideshow presentation. He began by letting the audience know that his talk would be divided into three parts. First, he would discuss cell biology as a whole, its relationship to biomedical research, and his initial research. Then, he would discuss the reasons that he decided to begin studying bees. Finally, he would explore the question posed by the title of the talk: what, exactly, is the connection between cell biology and the protection of honey bees?

Snow began by discussing cell biology, which, according to him, is a field that is based on the study of the structures and functions of the smallest unit of life. He did note, though, that cell biology also takes substructures such as organelles and larger structures such as tissue and organs into account. Knowing components of cells and how cells work is fundamental to all biological science, and cell biology is essential for research in all biomedical fields—not just those involving humans.

For fifteen years, Snow studied blood development and related processes such as signal transduction. Eventually, though, he became incredibly interested in agriculture and food production after co-teaching a course on the topic at Tufts University. He really wanted to better understand those processes and to figure out how organizations are employed. At around the same time, he “took a beekeeping class, fell in love, and never went back.”

Why should we care about bees? For Snow, the answer comes down to one word: pollination. Honey bees in particular facilitate plant reproduction by transferring pollen from the male parts of plants to the female parts of plants. Because there are nearly 30,000 honey bees in each colony, honey bees are able to pollinate entire agricultural fields far more quickly and efficiently than any other type of pollinator. They are also unique because they are generalist pollinators and can therefore be brought into any setting. In recent years, honey bees have played crucial roles in the production of almonds, apples, blueberries, and peaches. Keeping up with the demands of industrial pollination, however, has not been good for bees. Over 80% of the country’s 2,000,000 hives are in commercial migratory beekeeping operations which contain more than 10,000 hives. They are shipped across the country with great frequency and are forced to pollinate great numbers of plants. The effect? An overall decreased level of health. Partly as a result of these industrial beekeeping practices, forage quality declines, novel pathogens are introduced, and chemical poisoning begins to pose a real threat. Currently, Professor Snow is attempting to answer two questions through his research: How do bees respond to stress at the cellular level, and how do bees respond to infectious diseases?

In the third part of his presentation, Snow sought to explain how we can think about connecting cell biology and broader issues of sustainability. According to him, most people don’t think of this as a “natural fit.” As a member of the Sustainable Practices Committee at Barnard, Snow has spent quite a bit of time pondering this question. Most of the time, the only connections to the real world that are discussed in introductory cell biology courses have to do with medicine, and issues of sustainability are rarely mentioned. However, cell biology plays a crucial role in sustainability, as the case of the honey bee demonstrates. Cell biology provides a grounding upon which discussions about sustainability can be based, as cells are organized into tissues, tissues contribute to the functions of organisms, and organisms like bees promote the success of the colony.

Snow then talked about five steps that he plans to take to connect cell biology with sustainability in his introductory cell biology course that he teaches during the fall. First, he will frame the class explicitly in terms of pollinators and bee health. Second, he will begin the class with a field trip to the roof of Barnard Hall to see the bees that he raises there. Third, he will incorporate original research from his laboratory into readings. Fourth, he will start with a cell biology experiment using bees before focusing on cells. Fifth, he will encourage students to think about the “big picture” when working on their final projects. He ended his presentation with a reiteration of three of his main arguments: that biology is a continuum of different levels of organization, that bees are critical pollinators that need our help, and that honey bees can serve as “charismatic megafaunas” for other bees and for invertebrates more broadly.

After his presentation, which lasted for almost an hour, Snow took questions from members of the audience for about twenty minutes. This Q&A session was one of the most lively that I have witnessed recently, and it had a truly conversational feel to it throughout. Some questions had to do the topic of bees more broadly. For example, one person asked whether bees pollinate one species at a time or whether they fly around pollinating everything in the area. (The answer is that they do the former, interestingly enough.) The most interesting questions (and the most interesting answers), however, were related to Snow’s attempts as an educator to highlight the connection between cell biology and sustainability, which formed the crux of his talk.

When asked whether he has received any pushback for attempting to point out this connection rather than talking about applications of cell biology to the field of medicine, Snow chuckled and shook his head. Knowledge about cell biology is highly transferable, he said, and no one is missing out on anything by learning more about sustainability. Another member of the audience asked why it seems as though Snow is the only professor teaching an introductory course who is willing to make this connection. Snow answered by stating that introductory courses are set up in a manner that doesn’t allow for many connections at all to be made to the “real world.” When such connections are able to be made, most professors immediately turn to medicine, both because such connections are seen to be the most “useful” and because such connections are in some ways the easiest to point out.

Bee Movie begins with an unseen narrator speaking the following words: “According to all known laws of aviation, there is no way that a bee should be able to fly. Its wings are too small to get its fat little body off the ground. The bee, of course, flies anyways. Because bees don’t care what humans think is impossible.” The bee’s decision to fly is, on one level, quite similar to Snow’s decision to conduct his future cell biology classes in the manner that he hopes to. According to all known laws of undergraduate education, there is no way that a professor should be able to make meaningful connections between introductory material and real-world issues of sustainability. There isn’t nearly enough time to make those connections, and when such connections are made, most students expect to only hear about medicine. The innovate professor, of course, talks about sustainability and the importance of saving pollinators anyways. Because innovative professors don’t care what most people think is impossible.

 

Photo via Barnard College

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