2021 Physiology Graduate Morgan Sicuro on Choosing the Physiology Major for Biomedical Careers

Hi, my name is Morgan Sicuro, and I graduated from the University of Scranton in May of 2021 with a double major in Physiology and Psychology.
Since I was a child, I always knew that I wanted to help people. Many people in my family have careers in the medical field, and I knew I wanted to do the same thing. I decided that I would be a biology major and attend medical school after I graduated. Everyone always told me that it was normal to change majors in college and that I shouldn’t be afraid to change mine. After all, it is important to educate yourself in something that will help you reach your career goals as well as something that you enjoy.

When I first found out about the physiology major, I did not really know what it was all about. I knew that most people who wanted to go to medical school were biology majors, so I was initially skeptical in switching my major. I learned that the physiology major offered courses that were aimed towards understanding organisms at both the cellular level as well as the integrative level. It also offered many courses that emphasized human function. Being that I want to pursue a career in human medicine, I especially enjoyed the opportunities to take classes such as Advanced Human Anatomy and Physiology, Comparative Biomechanics, Genetics, and Cardiovascular Physiology. These classes supplied me with knowledge that I applied to my volunteer work in the medical field. For example, I volunteer at the ambulance in my city, where I was able to apply my knowledge and understand the mechanisms behind certain dysfunctions in patients that I encountered.

The major is a small and close-knit group that allowed me to grow close to my fellow classmates and form relationships that I probably would not have otherwise formed. Many professors teach more than one course in the major, which allows professional relationships between students and faculty to develop. These relationships can lead to opportunities such as doing research with a professor. I joined a research group for one of the professors that I had for multiple courses, and learned the many aspects involved in research processes.

Looking back, I think that individuals looking to go into the medical field should become a physiology major because it offers unique opportunities for education, research, and relationships. The major offers different levels of rigor, which appears competitive to post-grad programs. My post-graduate plans are to take a gap year and apply to Physician Assistant programs. In the meantime, I will continue to use the knowledge that I acquired in the courses I have taken to benefit my volunteer work with my local ambulance corps.

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Recent Presentations and Publications by Professor Rob Smith and his Research Students

To accompany Dr. Rob Smith’s recent summary of his ongoing research (Spotlight on Avian Behavioral Ecologist, Professor Rob Smith), below are listed a few presentations and publications of his research group.

Recent presentations

Hatch, Margret I., and Robert J. Smith. 2021. Seasonal and species differences in feather mite intensity in eight songbirds. Northeast Natural History Conference, a joint meeting with the Wilson Ornithological Society and the Association of Field Ornithologists. Virtual meeting. Presentation by M.I. Hatch.

This was a poster presenting our results examining feather mite infestation in a number of songbird species (Common Yellowthroat, Gray Catbird, Magnolia Warbler, Red-eyed Vireo, Veery, White-throated Sparrow and Black-capped Chickadee) captured at our study site in Lackawanna State Park during both spring and fall migration. We found seasonal and species differences in feather mite prevalence and intensity consistent with other studies. Mite prevalence was higher in spring than fall in all but one of the species examined (Ovenbird). We also found mite infection intensity varied by season and was higher in spring than in fall in all species examined.

Broom County Naturalist Club: Northern Saw-whet Owls – An overview of natural history and ongoing research within Lackawanna State Park. Online (Zoom) presentation on the biology and ecology of Northern Saw-whet Owls (November 11th, 2020).

I discussed the current state of knowledge about the natural history of Northern Saw-whet Owls along with providing an overview of our research on owls in Lackawanna State Park.

Recent publications

Smith, R.J. and M.I. Hatch. 2020. Stopover ecology of fall migrating landbirds at an inland stopover site in northeastern Pennsylvania dominated by nonnative vegetation. The Wilson Journal of Ornithology 32(2):398–409.

This paper, which was published recently (the journal is a few issues behind) explores timing of fall migrating landbirds by age and sex as well as the fitness consequences of using habitats dominated by exotic vegetation (an exotic species is a species that evolved elsewhere and has been introduced, often by humans, into a novel area) within Lackawanna State Park during fall migration. Results suggest little difference in migratory timing by age or sex and that exotic-dominated shrublands do not provide high-quality stopover habitat for most species using this habitat in northeastern Pennsylvania.

Smith, R. J., Hatch, M.I. and M. Carey. 2020. Arrival timing and the influence of weather experienced during the nonbreeding and breeding periods on correlates of reproductive success in female field sparrows (Spizella pusilla) breeding in northeastern Pennsylvania, USA. International Journal of Biometeorology. https://doi.org/10.1007/s00484-020-01905-0.

This paper explores relationships between temperature and precipitation experienced by Field Sparrows during the wintering, spring migratory and breeding periods and correlates of seasonal reproductive performance (when a female initiated her clutch, the number of eggs in her clutch and the average volume of eggs in her clutch). We used temperature and precipitation data acquired by weather stations south of our study area during the wintering and spring migratory periods as well as temperature and precipitation data from the Scranton Wilkes Barre Airport acquired during the breeding season. Our results suggest temperature and/or precipitation encountered when sparrows were south of our site during both the wintering period and the spring migratory periods influenced when a female arrived at our study site to breed as well as when she initiated her first clutch. We also found evidence that temperature experienced on the breeding grounds influenced clutch initiation day. Our results contribute to the growing body of evidence that events experienced prior to the breeding season may influence individuals and population processes in subsequent seasons.

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Spotlight on Avian Behavioral Ecologist, Professor Rob Smith

Adding to our occasional series on Biology department faculty and their research, Biology Professor Dr. Robert Smith (B.S., Alma College; M.S., Central Michigan University; Ph.D., The University of Southern Mississippi; Biology faculty member since 2003) summarizes below his research program, including Scranton students who contributed to this work.

My research emphasizes the behavior, ecology and conservation of landbird migrants. Over half of all landbirds breeding in the United States and Canada migrate to tropical wintering areas in Mexico, Central and South America as well as the islands in the Caribbean. Through the course of their movement, these long-distance migrants travel thousands of kilometers, often through unfamiliar habitats and uncertain weather, stopping at periodic intervals (stopover sites) to rest and rebuild energy stores necessary for fueling a continued migration. Migration is a high-risk, energetically costly event that takes its toll in increased mortality, especially among the young, naïve birds of the year. How migrants respond to the energy demand of long-distance flight and cope with contingencies that arise throughout the migratory period is key to their survival and successful reproduction and constitutes the basic questions behind my research program at The University of Scranton.

I am especially interested in factors influencing the timing of arrival and condition upon arrival at both migratory stopover sites and northerly breeding grounds. Research areas we are currently emphasizing include age- and sex-dependent arrival ecology, the influence of weather and climate on migratory timing and the fitness consequences of habitat use by migrating landbirds. I work with students from the University of Scranton and colleagues from both the University of Scranton and Penn State Scranton to capture, measure and release landbirds during both the spring and fall migratory periods at Lackawanna State Park.

In addition to being a Co-director of the Environmental Science Program I enjoy teaching courses in ecology, animal behavior, conservation biology and vertebrate biology. I especially enjoy working individually with students on research projects. When not teaching or conducting research I, along with my wife Beth, enjoy visiting family in Michigan, bird watching, hiking, kayaking and biking in northeastern Pennsylvania, and renovating our old farmhouse and barn.

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Physiology Graduate Alissa Copeland looks ahead to a career as a Nurse Practitioner

Hi! My name is Alissa Copeland and I am a graduate of the University of Scranton’s Class of 2021. I earned a Bachelor’s degree in Physiology with a minor in Psychology, and I graduated with Magna Cum Laude honors.

When I first began at Scranton, I was actually majoring in neuroscience on a pre-med track. However, I soon came to realize that my scope of study was somewhat narrow, and I wanted to explore coursework outside of the nervous system. After researching more about different majors, I discovered the new major in physiology at Scranton, an up-and-coming major that incorporates all of the systems in the human body. I learned that the opportunities in the field of physiology were endless – you could pursue medical school, nursing, physical therapy, physician’s assistant, etc. This is when I decided to enroll in physiology courses to gain a broader understanding of all the systems in the body. I quickly fell in love with this immersive program and switched into the Physiology major! 

The physiology program challenged me, yet rewarded me. I took courses such as Advanced Human Anatomy & Physiology I & II, Cellular and Integrative Physiology, and others that gave me a holistic understanding of physiology – but then I also got to explore specific systems through elective courses such as Genetics, Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, Cellular & Molecular Neurobiology, and Cardiovascular Physiology. I feel confident in saying that I now have a holistic, deep understanding of the systems in the body, and that I didn’t simply memorize and regurgitate material on my exams. This is really what distinguished physiology in my mind from other science majors – we are taught how integrative and codependent the different body systems are, and we learn to problem solve and piece all of this knowledge together. 

Over the past four years, I have developed a passion for physiology, for learning, and for helping others. I was able to gain hands-on experience outside the classroom as well, in which I volunteered as a medical scribe at our school’s local clinic, worked as a pharmacy technician at CVS Health, and volunteered as a hospital transporter in my hometown. I was able to see various areas of medicine and healthcare, and with all of these exposures, I came to the conclusion that I will be pursuing further schooling after graduation. I will be attending an Accelerated BSN program in 2022 followed by graduate school, to achieve my ultimate goal of becoming a Nurse Practitioner and helping others! 

I am so thankful for all of the opportunities given to me by the University of Scranton and the Physiology program. I can’t wait to apply all that I have learned at the University of Scranton in my future education and career!

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Gabrielle Verbeke-O’Boyle is the 2021 Excellence in Physiology Awardee

The Physiology Advisory Council and the Biology Department faculty are delighted to award the 2021 Excellence in Physiology Award to Gabrielle Verbeke-O’Boyle!

The Excellence in Physiology Award honors a senior graduating from the Physiology program for achieving academic excellence and embodying the ideals of an Ignatian education.

Gabby, who transferred to the University of Scranton in her sophomore year, immediately embraced the Physiology program for the opportunities that it afforded to focus on physiological aspects of the human body; she subsequently learned that her experience in Physiology would take her well beyond that. As Gabby embraced the core courses of the major, she strove to build a community of students within the new program, founding and serving as the first president of the Physiology Club. She dove into a faculty-mentored research opportunity, working with Dr. Chris Howey to study the effects on the lizard Anolis carolinensis of artificial light at night (ALAN), which impacts a broad array of species whose environment is altered by encroaching human development. Gabby credits her leadership roles and her beyond-the-classroom research experience with granting her the confidence to achieve her career goals, which she will be advancing as she joins the Masters of Biomedical Sciences program this July at Geisinger Commonwealth School of Medicine.

Congratulations, Gabby, and thank you for all that you contributed to the Physiology program at Scranton! Best wishes in your future endeavors.

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Biology Senior Jessica Fanelli completes her Honors Research Project on Local Breeding Bird Communities

Hello everyone! My name is Jessica Fanelli, and I am a Senior biology major at the University of Scranton. In my time at Scranton, I have had the privilege of being a member of the University’s Honors Program. As a member of the Honors Program, I composed a thesis centered around a research project that I have been working on for the past few years. My project is titled A Study of the Impact of Habitat on the Composition of Breeding Bird Communities in Lackawanna State Park During the Summer of 2020. My study focuses on how the breeding bird communities change in the Lackawanna State Park across three habitat types: field, forest, and a transitional field/forest edge habitat.

To collect data on the breeding bird communities for this project, I utilized programmable acoustic recording units which recorded the morning chorus of the bird communities throughout the summer months. After listening to each recording for a set number of days to match song to species, I was able to discern the number of different species, or species richness, present in each habitat type. Additionally, using a statistical analytical approach called occupancy modelling, I determined the probability of occupancy by species in each habitat type. This allowed me to know the probability of detecting a given species in a given habitat type during the time in which my study was conducted. With this project, I was also able to evaluate the usefulness of the combination of acoustic recording units and occupancy modeling for monitoring breeding bird communities. I was able to document the benefits of the combined approach, and I was also able to suggest a few modifications to improve future studies.

I would like to offer my sincerest thanks to all those who helped make this project a success. First, I would like to thankmy faculty mentor, Dr. Robert Smith, for agreeing to take on this project and for his continual help and guidance. I would also like to thank my defense committee members, Dr. Declan Mulhall and Dr. Janice Voltzow, for their willingness to serve on my committee and to give their time reading and improving my document. I would also like to thank the National Science Foundation, as this project was supported by the National Science Foundation S-STEM Grant Number 1741994. I offer additional thanks to Lackawanna State Park, for allowing me to survey birds in the park for this project. Finally, I would like to thank the Biology Department at the University of Scranton, for financial support and providing the necessary equipment for this project.

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A Great Resource: The APS Graduate Physiology and Biomedical Science Program Catalog

If the next steps in your academic career might be leading you to graduate programs in Physiology or other domains within the life sciences, the American Physiological Society’s (APS) Graduate Physiology and Biomedical Science Program Catalog is a great resource.

Check it out here:

The APS  is growing.

This online directory provides undergraduate biology and life science students and early-career physiologists with graduate program profiles that facilitate their search for the ideal institution. This is a great resource for students contemplating graduate school and the next step in their education and career.

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Biology Alumnus Michelle Uminski joins Columbia’s Masters Program in Ecology, Evolution and Conservation Biology

Hi, I’m Michelle Uminski, 2017 graduate of Scranton’s Biology Program.

It has been a few years since I graduated from the University of Scranton with majors in Biology and Philosophy, but the opportunities I had as an undergraduate continue to influence my career growth and goals. When I first attended the University in 2014, I knew that I was not interested in becoming a doctor or following the Pre-Med track, but I was still interested in exploring different topics in biology. I found that the Genetics and Animal Behavior courses were some of my favorites, and that I developed an interest in environmental studies. I am grateful that my biology electives let me refine my interests while also preparing me for a career in the sciences.

Despite developing an interest in environmental studies, I did not immediately pursue it as a career. Instead, I entered the pharmaceutical industry because I knew it was an important field where I could apply the skills I gained at Scranton, while still having room for career growth. My first job after graduation was a Data Analyst at PDS Life Sciences. This role focused on the FDA’s standards for electronic data submission and toxicology studies. I was responsible for taking client data and formatting it to be compliant with FDA standards while accurately representing the study data. While I enjoyed my work here, I found that I was interested in exploring other areas within pharmaceuticals that were more hands-on. I switched to my current role as a Quality Control Analyst in a chemistry lab at Sanofi, where I test different properties of drugs and drug products. The work that I do here is important to ensuring the safety of patients and it is interesting to learn about different lab equipment like HPLCs. Nevertheless, I still felt drawn toward the environmental field.

I am happy to announce that this Fall I will begin working toward my M.A. in Ecology, Evolution, and Conservation Biology (E3B) at Columbia University. This is a highly multidisciplinary program, meaning I can continue to explore different environmental topics, like environmental policy, while developing marketable skills related to statistics, data science, and computer programming. This program also has a research component, and I am excited by the opportunity to join a lab that studies the genetic influences on animal behavior, such as aggression in betta fish, or parental care in mice. While I am still not sure the exact career path I want to take, I know that this program will let me dive deeper into my interest areas, and that it will help to open new doors. I am grateful that my Scranton education has helped me reach this point, and although I am still unsure of my future career, I am optimistic and excited to start this next chapter.

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Meet Molly Rhein – First Physiology Graduate to Pursue a Doctorate in Physiology!

Hello! My name is Molly Rhein, and I graduated from the University of Scranton in December 2020 with a degree in Physiology. Choosing Physiology as my major was not necessarily a simple decision, but I am so glad I ended up here!
   I started at the University of Scranton as a Biology Major with the intention of pursuing Veterinary Medicine after undergrad. I was not necessarily passionate about science prior to attending college, but I was passionate about animals and I figured this was the best route to have a future career in animal medicine. The Physiology Major became available at the University of Scranton after my first year, and I chose to switch majors. I made this decision after reading up on the program. As physiology is the “bedrock of biomedical education,” I felt that this major was more suited to my goals in animal medicine. I also thought that a newer major would come with smaller class sizes and therefore more interaction with my professors and peers.

Upon taking my first classes in Physiology, I was engaged like never before. I loved the idea of piecing together an organism like parts of a machine, from the cellular level all the way up to a organ level. I was no longer just regurgitating information from a textbook onto tests, but I was critically learning. It was at this point where I wasn’t just in this field for thinking of a future career with animals, but I developed a passion for Physiology itself. It took me a couple of years to realize, but I started to consider that a becoming a veterinarian might not be the only path for me. After discussions with my advisor and professors, I became keen on the prospect of pursing a higher degree in Physiology. I was loving the feeling of “problem-solving” in my physiology courses, and a future graduate program would give me more of that while working in a research laboratory.

When I graduated in December, I began applying to Ph.D. programs in Physiology all over the country. I recently accepted a really great opportunity to continue my education within the Integrative & Biomedical Physiology doctoral
program at Penn State University. I am so excited to start my next journey, and I know that it is the Physiology program at the UofS that made this possible. During grad school, I will be taking more courses in physiology while working in various labs under established researchers. My goal is to apply my experiences to conduct my own research in canine diseases. This career path in physiological & biomedical research allows me to reach animals on a broader scale than I could have ever imagined. I am so grateful I was given the opportunity to major in Physiology at the University of Scranton and I am so excited to see where this education leads me.

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T.J. Zenzal – The Life and Times of an Avian Field Ecologist

Hello, I am T.J. Zenzal, I grew up in Justus, PA (15 minutes outside of Scranton) and graduated from the University of Scranton in 2008 with B.Sc. in Environmental Science and a minor in Philosophy.

As an undergraduate at the University of Scranton, I had the opportunity to participate in the Faculty-Student Research Program, which allowed me to work closely with faculty of the Biology department studying avian ecology.

Back at the beginning – on a Scranton Ecology class field outing

Through this program, I learned the skills I needed to be competitive for an internship as an avian field technician working with breeding birds in the Missouri Ozarks. After graduation, I worked similar technician positions in Mississippi, Louisiana, and New Hampshire, before starting a M.Sc. program at the University of Southern Mississippi. During my M.Sc. program, I decided ecological research is my passion and soon after switched to a Ph.D. program. My Ph.D. research focused on the migration biology of Ruby-throated Hummingbirds before they negotiate crossing the Gulf of Mexico (~1,000 km non-stop flight). Part of my project included using cutting edge technologies to study the behavior of the smallest migratory bird in eastern North America, including being the first person to use radio transmitters on hummingbirds in the Unites States. While in graduate school I had the opportunity to travel to Costa Rica, Sweden, and Alaska to study avian ecology, not to mention national and international conferences where I presented my research findings. 

After graduating with my Ph.D in 2016, I found funding for a post-doctoral position working with both the University of Southern Mississippi and University of Delaware. This position allowed me to study radar ornithology, the use of weather surveillance radar to study bird distributions and movements. After a year, I accepted another post-doctoral position with the University of Illinois to study migratory shorebird use of agricultural fields participating in a drainage management program. Shortly after, I received ~$1.5 million in grant funding, which was part of the BP Oil Spill settlement, to study bird migration along the Gulf of Mexico coast as a Research Scientist with the University of Southern Mississippi. In 2019, I accepted a position as a Research Ecologist with the United States Geological Survey, an agency within the U.S. Department of the Interior that works to meet the research needs of partner organizations (e.g., U.S. Fish and Wildlife, state wildlife agencies). In my current position with the USGS, I use a variety of field and technological methods to understand the response of wildlife to ecological (e.g., severe weather, climate change) and anthropogenic (e.g., urbanization, habitat restoration) factors across the Gulf of Mexico region. By working with land management and conservation partners, my research directly benefits wildlife species and their habitats.

While a variety of experiences have shaped my career path, the University of Scranton provided the inspiration for my future and the foundation needed for me to succeed. The concepts and techniques I learned in courses, such as Conservation Biology and Ecology, are directly relevant to the work I do today. This is especially true of research opportunities outside the classroom, which provided me with a skillset that I will continue to use over the rest of my career. Additionally, the small class sizes allowed meaningful interactions with faculty, which, based on my experience, would be more difficult at a larger university. In fact, being able to regularly interact with faculty in the Biology Department has allowed me to continue working with members of the Department on new and exciting research projects.

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