In the Wild: Benedictine Students Learn Science by Doing Science

Monday, April 6, 2020

Biology students researching in a field

For the students and faculty of the Benedictine College Biology Department, hours of reading and time in the lecture hall are just the tip of the iceberg. The deepest learning comes through experiences and adventure in the field, with the tools of the sciences in hand and dirt under their fingernails.

That’s been the philosophy of the department for the past 75 years. What was born under the leadership of the late Fr. Eugene Dehner, OSB, PhD ’37, carried on through long-time Department Chair, retired Dan Bowen, PhD, now lives on in the work of two of Dr. Bowen’s protégés, current Biology Department Chair, Terry Malloy, PhD ’95, and Associate Professor Virginia Winder, PhD ’04.

Biology students use a research instrument in a field

The college recently announced a grant from the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism (KDWPT), awarded to Winder and Malloy. The award will provide about a half-million dollars over the next four years. The goals of the project are to introduce ring-necked pheasants into the 1,600 acre Dalbey Bottoms Wildlife Area, as well as conduct parallel monitoring of the established pheasant population at Benedictine Bottoms.

Both the Dalbey and Benedictine Bottoms were established on the Missouri floodplain in Atchison County by the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers and are managed by the KDWPT.

“We talk to our students all the time about learning science by doing science,” said Dr. Winder. “This is a great opportunity to do science in a real world way.”

Benedictine Bottoms

In the mid-2000s, Dr. Bowen called some of his former students to talk about the opportunities for field research in the nearby 2,100 acre Benedictine Bottoms Wildlife Area, in the floodplain of the Missouri River. Those calls led to the creation of the Benedictine Bottoms Research Endowment, initially established in 2006 through gifts from Tom, DDS ’83 and Joan Moyer ’85 Kemlage, Tom ’85 and Michelle Oswald ’85 Sak, Jim Bongers, DDS ’77, Patrick Mullins, MD ’93, Mark Boschert, MD ’87 and Stephanie Van Dyne, DDS, a former member of the college Board of Directors. Many subsequent donors have followed their lead, and the endowment continues to support field research in the bottoms today.

Biology students use a research instrument near a treelineBiology students pose for a picture, covered in cockleburs

Tom Kemlage fondly remembers his time in the field with his friend and mentor, Dr. Bowen. That experience inspired Tom and Joan’s gift to the Benedictine Bottoms Research Endowment. The Kemlages also created the Kemlage Travel Fund, which helps fund student travel on domestic and international field trips.

“Dr. Bowen would take us to the Sonoran Desert, or Big Bend National Park, or the Konza Prairie in Western Kansas,” said Tom. “The trips I took as a student remain the highlights of my educational career. It gave me the chance to publish two papers as an undergrad.”

The Benedictine Bottoms Research Endowment enabled the Biology Department to do the preliminary work that laid the foundation for the current KDWPT grant. The fund provided salaries for student researchers during two summers. And the data these students collected during this time set the stage for the larger grant proposal.

“The proximity of the Benedictine Bottoms to campus has allowed us to give students research opportunities to work with local plants, animals and an entire river floodplain ecosystem,” said Dr. Winder.

Experience Leads to Opportunity

It was the work of the students and faculty in the Benedictine Bottoms that directly led to the awarding of the half-million-dollar Dalbey Bottoms grant. The department has worked closely for years with Kirk Thompson, father of Benedictine College alumna Cassondra Thompson ’11, and KDWPT Public Lands Manager for the Benedictine Bottoms Wildlife Area. Kirk has been helpful in mentoring Benedictine students and helping new graduates find employment. His experience with the college’s work was a major component in Winder and Malloy eventually securing the grant.

A pheasant near a body of water

“The grant is a really good opportunity to open lots of doors for our students to get research experience on a largescale project,” said Dr. Winder. “We’re excited to get this opportunity to work with Kirk, and continue to do research at these mitigation sites.”

“I would like to thank everyone who made the Dalbey Bottoms grant become a reality,” said Dr. Malloy. “Dr. Winder, Kirk Thompson, the Kansas Department of Wildlife, Parks and Tourism, The Army Corps of Engineers, and all the donors to the Benedictine Bottoms Research Endowment— they’ve all been a part of building upon the foundation of research well-established by Fr. Eugene and Dr. Bowen. We are sincerely grateful for the opportunities they have created for our students.”