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Lab exercise developed by biology professor and alumna published

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Posted on Monday, January 18, 2021

A teaching lab activity developed by Westminster College Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Diana Ortiz and Tia Kowalo, a 2019 alumna, was recently published in Teaching Issues and Experiments in Ecology (TIEE), a peer reviewed publication of ecological educational materials by the Ecological Society of America.

The ecology laboratory exercise “Use of Historical Death Certificates as a Tool to Study the Changing Dynamics of Human Populations,” which appears in Volume 16 of TIEE, entails demography, ecology and epidemiology concepts that uses a publicly-available historical death certificate database.

In this lab activity, originally created by Ortiz for her epidemiology course, students explore differences in human demography over time and among populations that differ in factors like geography, ethnicity or cause of death.

“Population characteristics change through time and in response to shifting environmental and demographic conditions,” said Ortiz. “This exercise allows students to explore a broad array of historical epidemiology and human ecology data which they can use to design studies to answer research questions and utilize biostatistical tools to analyze it. It is designed to enhance critical thinking and data management skills.”

Through the exercise, students can develop their own specific research questions and then investigate them by constructing and comparing life tables, calculating survivorship curves, determining causes of mortality and analyzing other related demographic characteristics.

This lab activity offers students a unique opportunity to collect real-life mortality data, use critical thinking tools to evaluate it and acquire project management and data management skills, Ortiz said.

Ortiz and Kowalo are also in the process of submitting another research article for publication—“Species Identification and Blood-feeding Patterns of Mosquitoes (Diptera: Culicidae) in a Dry Tropical Forest in Northwestern Costa Rica”—based on research the pair conducted in Costa Rica in 2017 and 2018 in collaboration with colleagues from the College of Wooster and the Universidad de Costa Rica in San Jose.

Ortiz joined the Westminster faculty in 2014. She earned her undergraduate degree from the Universidad del Turabo in Puerto Rico, her master’s from Jackson State University and her Ph.D. from the University of South Carolina.

Kowalo graduated from Westminster College in 2019 with a degree in environmental science and a minor in management for scientists. She currently works for Shale Land Services, LLC as a title abstractor.   

For more about Westminster's biology program, click here. To learn more about Westminster's environmental science program, click here.

Above photo: Dr. Diana Ortiz, left, and Tia Kowalo '19