Top Navigation

Side Navigation

Biology Department People

A peek at people from the WIU biology department, celebrating the diversity of the folks wandering Waggoner Hall.

Here are some of our undergraduate students, graduate students, and faculty members sharing their interests, experiences, research, and aspirations.

December 2012

Ashley and Tim


zubeck spier

Undegraduate Student: Ashley Zubeck

Ashley is a sophomore majoring in Zoology. Ashley plans to become a marine mammal trainer. She chose Western in part because of our zoology program, and in part because of our relationship with the Shedd Aquarium through Dr. Thomas. "Going to WIU has given me a great opportunity to further my dreams of working with animals.  The science department surprised me the most.  Some of the most intelligent and wonderful people I will ever meet work in the WIU science department and I was shocked that the department was so diverse and had such tremendous professors.  I have started to understand what life is actually like in the field of science and have grown as a person from that experience.  I have become better adjusted for it and more aware of what life will be like once I graduate from WIU."

Ashley is also an active member and the current Historian of WIU Zoology Club. " It has been the single most enriching experience of my life so far.  Zoology club caters to my desire to work with animals by creating volunteer opportunities at Zoos.  I have gotten to participate in things that most people never even think are possible and I have met some great people through the club.  I am also a member of Scuba Club and that has helped me strengthen my abilities underwater and has created networking abilities for me in the Scuba world. "

A favorite class of hers has been Zoology 200 (no surprise there, right?).  Ashley told me, "My professor was Dr. Spier and he taught in a hands on manner and tried to get the whole class involved.  Most of the class was actually review from things I had learned in previous classes or had learned about on my own, but it also explored new topics that helped me stay engaged and interested."

Faculty: Dr. Tim Spier

Dr. Spier is on sabbatical this fall, after achieving tenure a few years ago. "I started here in August of 2004. I was hoping to find a position at a University that valued teaching, but that also had plenty of opportunities for field research in fish ecology. When I saw that WIU was looking for fish ecologist with big river experience, I jumped at the chance!" He teaches Ichthyology, Fisheries Management, Limnology, Biometrics, Biological Applications of GIS, Introductory Zoology, Ecology, and Resource Management for Fly Fisheries.

"My overall teaching philosophy is that students learn best when they are excited about the material. So, I try to share with them my enthusiasm and interest in the topics we are learning. Biology is filled with many amazing examples of interesting organisms; consequently, I have no shortage of great biological stories to tell. My techniques vary from class to class and topic to topic, but I try to give the students as much "hands on" experience as possible."

You can learn more about Dr. Spier and fly fishing on YouTube at He has other videos posted as well, which can be seen at

I asked him if he wanted to share anything else. "I've been married to Susan for 7 years, and our daughter Sophia is 5 and just started Kindergarten!" You can also read about Dr. Spier's research on our Faculty Research webpage.




November 2012

Sarah, Jason, and Meshack



 tuter meshack

 Undergraduate Student: Sarah Wilcer

Sarah is a sophomore zoology major from Lombard, Illinois. After she graduates from Western Illinois University, she is thinking about graduate school, but ultimately she would love to work at a zoo or wildlife refuge. I asked Sarah why she came to Western. “My older brother also goes to WIU, so I knew about the school from him and it was my most cost effective option for college. I decided to major in zoology because I have always been interested in animals and conservation.”


Sarah is enjoying Western. “I have gained confidence from meeting many new people and have become more outgoing. What surprised me most about WIU was seeing how many other people are interested in the same things I am. At my high school, no one I knew was very outdoorsy or willing to go spend a whole day volunteering, but there are many students here who are.” She is a member of the Zoology Club. “Club membership has been great! I have been a member of the Zoology Club since my freshman year and this year I am the Vice President. I have met many like-minded people and gained a lot of experience through the volunteer work our club does at various zoos.” One class she has enjoyed is Art 180. “It is always interesting to hear other people’s interpretations of works of art.”

Sarah is minoring in Spanish. “I chose this minor because the jobs I am interested in doing in the future are extremely competitive and knowing another language always puts you a step ahead of other applicants. I live in an area where Spanish is the dominant second language, so being able to communicate with this large portion of the population is vital. This is especially true because I hope to be involved in the areas of education and conservation, where I would be working directly with the public. I also would like to minor in business because I am interested in the managerial aspect of organizations.” Enrolled in the Honor’s College, she is looking forward to be doing research her junior and senior years.

Graduate Student: Jason Tuter

Jason Tuter is a second-year graduate student at Western Illinois University, working in Dr. Musser’s research lab. Jason was a Western Illinois University undergraduate student as well. From Mendon, he chose WIU in part because it was close to home. Jason hopes to graduate in spring 2014, and after leaving WIU he plans to study medical mycology.

I asked Jason how WIU has changed him. Originally he wanted to be a physician, but his interests have shifted from medical practice towards medical research. He also mentioned that the more he studied molecular biology the more it has become his focus.

“I am collaborating with Dr. Musser and Dr. Porras-Alfaro, working on a fungal endophyte of corn called Phytocephiala fortinii. This fungus is from higher elevations in Colorado, and corn growing with it has increased germination and growth rates. I am using microarray analysis to study the genetics of the corn, looking for genes the fungus activates.”

Jason is a teaching assistant for Anatomy & Physiology. Jason recalled that one especially memorable class at WIU was Biology 502. Taught by Dr. Hum-Musser, the course introduced him to molecular techniques that he wasn't familiar with.

Faculty: Dr. Meshack Afitlhile

Dr. Meshack Afitlhile came to the United States from South Africa via a Fulbright Scholarship. He studied at the University of Kentucky and was a postdoc at the University of Massachusetts, then taught in Mississippi for several years before coming to Western Illinois University four years ago.

He studies the role of major chloroplast receptors in the import of cytoplasm synthesized enzymes, mainly fatty acid desaturases. He works with several different mutants of Arabidopsis that have specific receptors that are not functional. “Some receptors work together, and all are required for protein import”, Meshack explained. There are three major chloroplast receptors, and one is the most abundant. “We expected the abundant receptor to be essential for lipid synthesis and desaturation, but it turns out it is quite the opposite. The less abundant receptors are essential for the biosynthesis of chloroplast lipids.”

Dr. Afitlhile teaches Cell Biology, Plant Physiology, and a first-year-experience section of Biology 100. He mentioned that in his Cell Biology course the students spend quite a bit of time working with data, using graphical and other forms of analysis to evaluate the results. “My philosophy is that science is not just a set of results but also a process.”  You can also read about Dr. Afitlhile's research on our Faculty Research webpage.




October 2012

Bill, Stephanie, and Chris


 bill stephanie chris

Undergraduate Student: Bill Schmidt

Willam Schmidt is a senior Botany major, with a minor in Environmental Studies. When he graduates next spring he plans to pursue a Master's degree in Environmental Science, hopefully at the University of Michigan. I asked Bill why he chose WIU for his college degree. "I chose to come to Western because I loved the beauty of the campus and how Western Is a big school with a small school feel. Plants have always interested me so majoring in botany was a very easy choice and I haven’t regretted it since." He added, "I picked Environmental Studies as my minor because the world around us is changing for the worse and it’s going to take us to save the planet we call home."

Bill is a member of Tri-Beta. "My time in Tri-beta has been great; it has given me the confidence to get to know my professors and the staff in the biology department. It has also been a great time hanging out with other biology students that I might not get to see on an average basis."  His strong interest in Environmental Studies is evident when I asked him about a class that was especially memorable. "Sociology 499, Environmental Sociology that was taught by Dr. Richard Gee. I loved all my science classes but this one gave me a new take on a lot of issues and really sparked my interest in studying the environment."

Currently Bill is doing some research with me. "I'm helping Dr. Eric Ribbens on his Opuntia (Prickly Pear) work. So far we have taken a two week trip out to Utah and are growing samples out at the AG department. By measuring pad size, thorns, and flowers we hope to distinguish the difference in not only the different varieties of Opuntia but also the variation in characteristics of different species from different parts of the country. Working with Dr. Ribbens has been a very rewarding experience. He has taught me so many things the I would have never learned in the class room. I thank him for giving me a chance freshman year and I’m going to take everything I learn and apply it to the rest of my career." The picture on the left above shows Bill (in the background) preparing to measure some prickly pears in Utah, and if you see Bill, ask him about his close encounter with a bison during that trip.

Finally, Bill won the contest to be the person who pushed the button to blow up Wetzel Hall last summer. "Blowing up Wetzel Hall was so much fun. It was a very thrilling experience and I am glad I was chosen to do it. I like to refer to it as the “Not even a once in a life time experience” because let’s be honest. Who gets to blow up a building legally?" 

Graduate Student: Stephanie Stenger

Stephanie Stenger is the profiled graduate student this October. Stephanie is working towards an education license along with a master’s in biology, emphasizing science education.

“I have always been fascinated by how life works, and I decided on studying biology in college. I received my BS in Medical Science in 2010 at WIU, where I discovered that I love to teach as much as I love to learn. The faculty, environment and biology curriculum at WIU convinced me it would be a great place to continue my education into graduate school.” Stephanie plans to graduate in the Spring of 2014 with both a MS in biology and a K-12 IL state teaching license in science. Shen then hopes to teach at the high school level.

I asked Stephanie about her research. She’s in the planning stage right now. She’s especially interested in digital resources to help students in high school learn science. Stephanie is a teaching assistant in the Biology Department, so I asked her what she has learned from the experience. “Being a teaching assistant at WIU has probably been the most influential part of my career here. I have learned patience, gathered a deeper understanding of the various sub-disciplines within biology, and most importantly, I have discovered my love for teaching.”

A favorite class Stephanie remembers is Biol482G -Science in Context, coordinated by Dr. Barden-Gabbei. Stephanie remarked “the class really helped to further define and organize my understanding of science as a process, as well as teach me that successful science really requires a lot of time, hard work, and dedication above and beyond the typical routine of opening a book or going to lecture and studying hard to grasp the concepts; there is an essential application component of science, too.”

I asked Stephanie what she would like to share with prospective graduate students. “The WIU biology department is full of wonderful professors who are knowledgeable in a diverse array of biological disciplines. All of the professors that I personally have the pleasure or working with and learning from are very fair and understanding, and are truly great teachers. I am excited to go forth and share my knowledge and experiences I have gained from them with our future generations.”

Faculty: Dr. Christopher Jacques

Dr. Christopher Jacques joined the Western Illinois University Biology Department this fall, and is the featured faculty member this month. “Prior to joining the WIU faculty, I was working as a Natural Resources Research Scientist for the Wisconsin Department of Natural Resources. From 2007-June 2012, I served as the principle research scientist for statewide planning and implementation of research studies designed to acquire new information critical to the management of white-tailed deer in Wisconsin.”

I asked him how the fall semester has gone so far. “I'm teaching two courses this fall, including mammalogy (ZOOL 412) and conservation and management of natural resources (BIOL 426). From my perspective, they are going pretty well. I’m delighted to be on schedule, though I sometimes wish I had enough time to actually get a lecture or two ahead of my scheduled class dates (rather than finishing my lectures hours before class). Overall, I’m enjoying the challenge of developing new courses but admittedly, I will be happy to have all my course preparations completed.”

Dr. Jacques is a large mammal ecologist, studying pronghorn and other game species. (the picture below shows Chris studying a whitetail deer fawn!) “I am fortunate enough to be collaborating with my colleagues at South Dakota State University on large mammal research across the Northern Great Plains. Specifically, we're working on several landscape level analyses evaluating site fidelity, home range size, seasonal migration, and survival of pronghorns as influenced by heterogeneity of landscape characteristics across western South Dakota. Additionally, I have been developing a pronghorn sightability model using data collected during my Ph.D. research and anticipate working collaboratively with South Dakota game managers to develop a white-tailed deer sightability model. I hope to complete an ongoing analysis predicting prevalence of meningeal worm in eastern South Dakota as influenced by climate data and landscape metrics soon.”

He added “My future efforts will involve building a research program that focuses on evaluating infectious disease ecology and population dynamics of mammals that occur in midwestern landscapes. Thus, I will be looking for highly motivated graduate students with strong interests in mammalian ecology and a desire to conduct applied research. Prospective graduate students also should also possess a strong aptitude for field-based research, quantitative data analysis skills, and a desire to publish research in peer-reviewed scientific journals.”

Chris also told me, “In recent months, I've developed quite a fascination accompanying WIU faculty/staff on electrofishing outings on the Mississippi and Illinois rivers. Like most of us in the Department, I enjoy spending most of my free time enjoying the wonders of nature and teaching my kids about science, particularly wildlife science.”  You can also read about Dr. Jacques' research on our Faculty Research webpage.


 chris with fawn