Events & News

Letter from the Chair 2023

Ken Hillers

As I write this, we’re just drying out from another atmospheric river. In the end, it may be the weather that winds up being the most memorable thing about this year! That being said, I’m very excited about what’s happening in the department right now and to share a few specific highlights with you.

            One faculty member, in particular, has been busy. In 2022 Dr. Nishi Rajakaruna earned both Cal Poly’s Distinguished Teaching Award and Distinguished Scholarship award. That by itself is a remarkable achievement. But not one to rest on his laurels, Nishi also was awarded his second Fullbright Scholar award, and is currently in South Africa working with scientists there in botanical research. Way to go Nishi!

            I’ll also introduce our newest faculty member. Dr. Mallary Greenlee-Wacker joined us this year. She is an immunologist and will contribute to teaching in our cell biology classes as well. Mallary has been a great addition to the department, and we are happy to have her on board!

            We are happy to continue getting back to normal department operations, after several years of SARS-CoV-2 — related disruption. With only a few exceptions, all lecture classes are back to meeting in person; labs have all been in person for some time now. But many instructors have taken advantage of the lessons they learned by being forced to teach online, and are using Zoom and other online modalities to enhance their in-person class offerings. It’s an excellent example of making something good out of a difficult experience, and I’m proud of them for all that they do.

            As another example of how our operations are getting back to normal, I’m happy to say that our student-centered research activities have really picked back up in the last year, and are even approaching record levels. 

As you may recall, most in-person research activity was halted in 2020; it’s taken a while for those activities to really get going again. But I was pleased to see that in Winter 2023, we had nearly 300 different undergraduate students signed up for one of our research supervision classes — this may be an all-time high for us! These students were engaged in all sorts of research, ranging from microbiology to wildlife biology and ecology.  For an example, see the interview with Professor Emily Taylor in this newsletter.

Travel opportunities for students are also picking back up after the pandemic; scientific conferences are happening in person again, and our students are taking advantage of opportunities to attend. For example, we recently sent 49 students to the Western Society of Naturalists meeting in Southern California. These students presented their research findings and networked with scientists from other institutions. Maybe a few even found jobs!

Perhaps more than anything else, these opportunities for students are what we really pride ourselves on these days, so I’m excited to see how active we are in this area right now.  It’s also great to see how excited our excellent students are about being able to get these sorts of opportunities — we really are blessed at Cal Poly in the quality of our students, both from an intellectual standpoint and in terms of their motivation.

            There is another big change on the horizon for the department and Cal Poly. We’ve been told by the CSU Chancellor’s office that we will convert from the quarter system (three terms per academic year) to the semester system (two terms per year); our first term on semesters begins Fall 2026. 

As you might imagine, there will be lots of work associated with this change. Among other things, we need to redesign all of our degrees (majors, minors, and the MS program). Oh, and we need to redo all 130 or so of our classes, combining some, expanding others, and generally reformatting them for the semester format. 

We’ve really started digging into this challenge this year; our degrees have been revised, and we’re starting to work on the classes. While it’s easy for us to focus on the large amount of work that this entails (on top of our normal workload), I’m also frequently reminded of the opportunity this gives us as well — since we have to redo everything, we can really look at our classes and degrees, and try to make those difficult changes that will really improve the program in the end. 

As always, I’m impressed with the creativity and motivation for student success that my colleagues in the department display. After all, in the end that’s the goal — to make Cal Poly and the Biological Sciences department the best it can be!

            We are always grateful to our alumni and supporters who donate to the department; those funds really help us enhance our program in ways that directly impact students. A couple of examples of specific uses to which donor funds were put: donor funds helped support the purchase of a flow cytometer that will be used in our cell biology and immunology classes, and in faculty-student research. Donor funds also helped support an equipment/technology refresh for our anatomy and physiology teaching laboratories; our students with interests in the health professions will directly benefit from this.

            Thanks for reading, and I hope you enjoy the rest of the newsletter!



Ken Hillers, Chair


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