Indiana University Research & Creative Activity

On the Human Condition

Volume XXVIII Number 2
Spring 2006

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Whitney Schlegel
Photo © Tyagan Miller

Teaching What It Means to Be Human

by Nicole Roales

Most people don't make a connection between studying animals and human biology. But Whitney M. Schlegel, an associate professor of biology at Indiana University Bloomington and newly appointed director of IUB's Human Biology Program, draws that parallel every day.

"We have to think outside the box," Schlegel says. "We often find clues to how one might understand diseases and stress by studying animals first."

Schlegel began studying animals at the Lincoln Park Zoo in Chicago, but after a couple of years she yearned to work in a more rural setting. That's when she accepted a job at IU Bloomington, where her research in animal physiology and behavior shifted to animal thermoregulatory responses in extreme environments.

For 12 years, Schlegel worked with the late Professor Emeritus H. T. (Ted) Hammel, who first described the role of the hypothalamus in vertebrate thermoregulatory systems. Hammel investigated different physiological strategies of temperature regulation in humans by studying Australian Aborigines, Kala-hari Bushmen, Alacaluf Indians, and Europeans. His work led Schlegel to study the development and possible plasticity of mechanisms controlling body temperature in animals.

Results from this research, now being carried out by others in the Medical Sciences program, have suggested that thermal sensory exposure during early life may permanently change thermoregulatory ability. "In the lab we called it the 'Fort Lauderdale Effect,'" says Schlegel. "Rats raised in extreme cold preferred warmer temperatures when compared with rats raised in either extreme heat or thermally neutral environments."

In another study, Hammel and Schlegel contributed an invited review to Cell Biochemistry and Biophysics (2005) challenging the prevailing view that water concentration drives osmosis, or the movement of water in plants and animals. The review argues for a different perspective, one in which solutes (components such as sodium) in the solution play the central role in the movement of water.

Having worked with influential mentors such as Hammel and enjoying a passion for physiology, Schlegel wanted to provide her own students with experiences that would move them beyond simply memorizing and recalling facts for exams.

"I have had great mentors who have extended my understanding of the world and what it means to be human," she says. "I felt like we were turning out students who didn't know how to think analytically."

Lately, Schlegel's research has expanded to focus on the scholarship of teaching and student learning. Her research and teaching experiences at IUB, coupled with her role as a Carnegie Scholar and lead scholar with the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and Learning, have helped guide her in developing the new undergraduate degree program in human biology on the Bloomington campus.

The Human Biology Program emerged as a way to help students develop their identities as they become critical thinkers. Schlegel says the underpinning is scientific inquiry--students must ask questions--and the approach applied throughout the core courses will be collaborative and team-based. Such an approach clearly helps students "decode the discipline," as Schlegel and other IU faculty members put it in their October 2004 issue of New Directions for Teaching and Learning.

Schlegel and seven IU faculty fellows--Michael Wade (Biology), Joseph Near (Medical Sciences), Frederika Kaestle (Anthropology), Jane McLeod (Sociology), Georgia Strange (Fine Arts), Phillip Quirk (Medical Sciences), and Vivian Halloran (Comparative Literature)--have developed the core curriculum for the new biology program. The first-year course, piloted this spring, tackles the widespread problems of obesity, diabetes, and limited public understanding of food, diet, and global malnutrition.

Vivian Halloran, director of undergraduate studies and assistant professor of comparative literature at IUB, is co-teaching the spring course with Schlegel. To Halloran, the Human Biology Program promises science students the same empowerment that her literature students experience when they express their ideas in writing.

"The traditional pedagogy in place for the science classes focuses on rote memorization, and that goes counter to a holistic liberal arts and science education," Halloran says. "Whitney's idea to incorporate more analytical thinking and team decision-making improves the learning of science."

Nicole Roales is assistant managing editor in the Office of University Communications in Bloomington.