Biology Department

Assistant Professor of Biology Erin Lehmer wins New Faculty Award

Published: Monday, May 3, 2010 by the Fort Lewis College Office of Public Affairs
Author: Mitch Davis, public affairs officer

Erin Lehmer (right)

DURANGO, Colo. — For Dr. Erin Lehmer (1997), an assistant professor in the Fort Lewis College Biology Department, being open to new opportunities was what helped guide her to where she is now.

Although she knew she wanted to pursue a career in biology, she had a hard time narrowing down her interests. She wanted to work with animals, wanted to work outside, but also wanted to be able to do lab-based research. Because she was preparing to enter graduate school, she knew that she would have to focus on just one of these areas of study, which would ultimately shape the path of her career. Luckily, she was receptive when one of her professors offered her a bit of advice.

“The professor I was working with suggested a field called physiological ecology where you study the physiological process of wild animals,” Dr. Lehmer recalls. “Essentially, this area of study would allow me to fulfill all of my interests; I could collect samples from animals living outside in their natural environments and bring these samples back to the lab to complete my research.”

She started her undergraduate education at the University of Utah, but found an opportunity to come to Fort Lewis College as part of a student exchange program. Again, her plans changed.

“That exchange program was only supposed to be for a semester, but I liked it so much at Fort Lewis that I decided to stay.”

Dr. Lehmer earned her bachelor’s degree in biology and graduated Cum Laude from Fort Lewis College. From there, she continued her education, earning a master’s degree and a Ph.D. in physiological ecology from Colorado State University.

During her own education, she had the opportunity to do both teaching and research, two disciplines that she wanted to continue to pursue when she chose to return to Fort Lewis College as a faculty member.

Fort Lewis College offers Dr. Lehmer wonderful opportunities to offer her students a mix of learning in smaller classes with learning by doing research, something not always available at other schools.

“The obvious difference is that, at a bigger school, the undergraduate classes are huge, maybe a hundred to over four hundred students, so even seniors are going to be in very large classes,” she says. “Likewise, because larger colleges and universities have so many students, it can be difficult for them to offer labs with their science courses, and generally, if labs are offered, they are taught by teaching assistants. At Fort Lewis College, most of our classes are well below thirty students and most of our science classes have labs that are taught by professors.”

Getting the opportunity to learn and do research is one thing, but the quality of those experiences makes a huge difference as well.

“Students at Fort Lewis College get more individual attention and because of this individual attention, they are able to achieve a higher level of learning and a more comprehensive understanding of the material,” Dr. Lehmer explains.

“Built into our curriculum, every biology student is required to complete a year-long senior thesis project, which is an independent, self-directed research project. It’s almost like doing a master’s degree in a year.”

“As part of this research, each student is required to design their own study, collect their own data, and present their findings. In contrast, undergraduates who seek out research opportunities at larger institutions usually have limited opportunities for hands-on data collection because graduate students usually fulfill this role. Fort Lewis College students are given opportunities as undergraduates that they would never be given at larger universities.”

For example, a group of her students recently developed and completed their own research project, which they went on to present at both regional and national scientific meetings, winning numerous grants and awards.

“That,” Dr. Lehmer says, “is really rewarding.”

Author Mitch Davis is the public affairs officer at Fort Lewis College. He can be reached at 970-247-7401 or davis_m@fortlewis.edu.