New College students present at national biology conference

By Shane Donglasan

This January, eight biology students joined thousands of other researchers from across the country for the 2019 Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology annual meeting. The four-day educational and research forum was held in Tampa.

Quinn Ferguson, Daphne Toglia, Jas Marie, Robyn McCartan and Kelly South with Assistant Professor Liz Leininger at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. The students presented a poster on the neural and muscular basis of animal behavior.
Quinn Ferguson, Daphne Toglia, Jas Marie, Robyn McCartan and Kelly South with Assistant Professor Liz Leininger at the Society for Integrative and Comparative Biology. The students presented a poster on the neural and muscular basis of animal behavior.

Sandra Domenech, Lauren Rodriguez and second-year Ben Lafond presented research they conducted last summer in Cayos Cochinos, Honduras, with biology and marine science professor Sandra Gilchrist.

Lafond, along with first-year Marena Long, studied how populations of invertebrates change with the size of different species of sea anemones.

Rodriguez, a second-year student who served as the teaching assistant for the students in Honduras, looked at interactions between hermit crabs and marine worms called sipunculids.

The group presented a poster featuring each of their projects and how experiences of conducting research abroad is important to engaging and retaining undergraduate students.

“It gives undergrads the chance to do field research and work on projects in an environment they aren’t familiar with,” said Rodriguez. “It promotes more problem solving and gives a really unique experience to everyone that participates.”

Lafond and Domenech said the experience helped them apply field techniques and learn about coral reef systems in more detail than they would inside the classroom.

Another group of students that attended the conference presented two posters on research they conducted with professor of biology Elizabeth Leininger.

Third-years Quinn Ferguson, Daphne Toglia, Robyn McCartan, second-year Jas Marie and fourth-year Kelly South have been studying the neural and muscular basis of animal behavior in Leininger’s neurobiology lab by observing a species called Xenopus muelleri, an African clawed frog.

“As we learn about the physiology of more and more species, we get a better picture of how these physiological features have evolved,” said Leininger.

Leininger said most of the students who presented at the conference were also instrumental in helping her set up her lab.

“They were really excited about the research,” she said. “They did a huge amount of trouble shooting and worked to get things up and running.”

Leininger’s students were able to attend the conference through funding from New College’s Council of Academic Affairs and Student Research and Travel Grant program. For most of them, it was their first scientific conference.

“I had always understood that scientific research will inevitably require multiple attempts in order to eventually obtain results,” said Toglia. “However, attending the conference made me truly understand that in fact it requires endless revision, questioning, critical thinking, alternative measures, and that just obtaining a valid result or making a breakthrough can take years, and even then it could only be just a minor breakthrough.”

Ferguson added that while the experience of undergraduate research is fulfilling, being able to present a poster was an “especially empowering experience.”

“It underscores the fact that one has contributed to the body of scientific knowledge,” Ferguson said.

— Shane Donglasan is the marketing writer/project coordinator at New College of Florida.


Located in Sarasota, New College of Florida has educated intellectually curious students for lives of great achievement since its founding in 1960. As the State of Florida’s designated honors college, New College provides an exceptional education that transforms students’ intellectual curiosity into personal accomplishment. The 110-acre campus on Sarasota Bay is home to more than 800 students and 80 full-time faculty engaged in interdisciplinary research and collaborative learning. New College offers nearly 40 areas of concentration for undergraduates and a master’s degree program in Data Science.

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