Amy Ng & John Vito d’Antonio-Bertagnolli
Dr. Ellen Wisner loves birds. In fact, she jokes to let her know that if you ever see a dead one laying around campus, as she’ll want to put it in a freezer to later preserve and stuff to practice her taxidermy. This is just another day in the life of an evolutionary biologist as passionate as Wisner. Since her hiring at NJIT in 2011 as a University Lecturer, she has not stopped wanting to impart her vast knowledge of ecology and evolution onto her students day in and day out.
As an undergraduate, Wisner began as a math major at Centre College, a small-sized institution in Kentucky. She recalls eventually becoming less interested in math as she worked her way up to the higher-leveled, more abstract courses. “I ended up in biology because I took some really great biology classes with some really great professors,” she says. And despite attending a primarily teaching-oriented school where there were sparse opportunities for undergraduate research, Wisner realized that she wanted to enter academia. She looked onto her professors, remembering that, “[she] thought that [she] would like to do exactly what they [were] doing. It’s what [she], at the time, imagined doing every single day for the rest of her life.”
It was one class in particular, Wisner’s senior seminar, “Mating Systems and Strategies,” that crystallized her decision to pursue a Ph.D. in biology. From Kentucky, she moved to Syracuse University to study evolutionary biology, specifically, the mating behavior of birds. For 5 years, she devoted her time as a Ph.D. candidate studying how birds mate, why they choose the mates that they do, and how urban noise affects their decisions, all the while gaining teaching experience as a graduate student.
She now focuses most of her time teaching two sections (containing 100 students each) of BIOL205, Foundations of Ecology and Evolution. This course is offered all year round, in the Fall, Spring, and even the Summer semesters. “I’ve been teaching this course for a long time. You might think that I’d get bored, but I don’t. Every semester, it’s different. I change it– I can’t help myself!” she jokes.
Wisner has been working as a new case fellow for a case study project that primarily focuses on getting more people to use case studies to teach biology. By introducing her students to compelling case studies, Wisner can incorporate new and engaging elements to her lesson plans, which ultimately create an interactive environment for her students, while simultaneously tying relevant ideas and course material together. One case study, “the Evolution of Human Skin Color”, is a reported student favorite. Wisner, who is a huge advocate for the use of case studies in teaching, shares that “[her] project within the program is to encourage students to write them to later submit for publication. [She] want[s] to get students in a good enough form to eventually submit their publications to a centralized database for other teachers to use to teach.”
Wisner has additionally been working with a group of professors from other Universities to identify whether or not using case studies in a class is effective in aiding students to think at higher levels. They are also looking at how to better integrate case studies and in-class discussions into exams. The group is in the process of determining how effective this entire system is for students in terms of learning, and anticipates turning out a publication on the subject in the future.
Though most of this University Lecturer’s time is spent teaching, Wisner admits that she misses doing biological research in a lab and netting birds. “I like research,” she begins, “but I really love teaching.” She explains that she loves the challenge of it, and how she enjoys tinkering with course material so that she can figure out new ways to teach something to help more students learn. She also finds that her students make her think about subjects in a way that she hasn’t yet. “I like when the students are excited to learn; it’s the “Ohh!” moment that they have when they’ve finally understood a new idea that I enjoy the most.” Wisner adds.
Outside of the classroom, the evolutionary biologist assumes a more physically active role, playing ultimate Frisbee in summer leagues. Wisner shares that she was in fact the oldest woman in the entire league this past summer. She also enjoys playing soccer and going to a CrossFit gym, something that she does 5-6 times a week. “I’ve even done a few weightlifting competitions,” Wisner casually adds.
Fondly recalling her own undergraduate years, Wisner confesses that she is surprised to notice that many of her students seem to be in a rush to get out of college and into the real world. On that note, she offers a bit of advice to NJIT students:
“You’re only in college once, and I wish that students savored it more. I loved college, and I couldn’t have ever imagined wanting to graduate even a year earlier. Try to slow down and enjoy the experience as much as you can, and learn as much as you can. You have your whole life to be in a rush.”
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