Michelle Hersh

AB, Bryn Mawr College. PhD, Duke University. Postdoctoral Research Associate, Bard College, Cary Institute of Ecosystem Studies. Community ecologist with a special interest in the connections between biodiversity and disease. Author of articles on how fungal seedling pathogens maintain tree diversity in temperate forests and how animal diversity alters the risk of tickborne diseases. Recipient of grants from the National Science Foundation. Previously taught at Bard College and Eastern Michigan University. SLC, 2013–

Undergraduate Courses 2017-2018

Biology

Global Change Biology

Open , Seminar—Spring

Climate change. Biodiversity loss. Nutrient pollution. Invasive species. Global ecosystems are being altered in dramatic ways due to human activities. In order to address these challenges, we first need to understand them scientifically. This course will explore the impacts of global environmental change through the lens of the biological sciences. Should humans assist with tree migration so that slow-migrating plants can catch up to changing temperature conditions? How are invasive predators like Burmese pythons in Florida affecting mammal populations? How can the extensive use of fertilizers upstream in a large river affect biological communities downstream? How has overfishing altered marine biodiversity? How could urbanization and habitat loss alter the risk of disease spillover from wildlife to humans? We will use scientific journal articles and other primary sources to address these kinds of questions and more in this seminar course.

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Disease Ecology

Intermediate , Seminar—Fall

This course explores infectious diseases—disease caused by bacteria, viruses, fungi, and other parasites—through the lens of ecology. Thinking like a disease ecologist means asking questions about disease at different scales. Rather than just considering interactions between an individual host and a parasite, we will look at disease at the population, community, and ecosystem levels. A disease ecologist may ask questions such as: How does a disease make a jump from one species to another? Why are some environments so conducive to disease transmission? How can we make better predictions of where and when new diseases may emerge and develop better management strategies to combat them? A disease ecologist may even consider infected hosts as ecosystems, where pathogens feed on hosts, compete with one another, and face off with the host’s immune system or its beneficial microbiome. Mathematical models of disease transmission and spread will be introduced. We will consider examples from plant, wildlife, and human disease systems.

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First-Year Studies: Urban Ecology

Open , FYS—Year

Ecology is a scientific discipline that studies interactions between living organisms and their environments, as well as processes governing how species are distributed, how they interact, and how nutrients and energy cycle through ecosystems. Although we may think of these processes occurring in “natural” areas with little to no human development, all of these processes still take place in environments heavily modified by humans, such as cities. This course will cover fundamental concepts in the discipline of ecology and then further explore how these patterns and processes are altered (sometimes dramatically) in urban environments. We will use examples from our local environment—the New York City Metropolitan Area—to understand ecological concepts in light of urbanization. The fall semester will include a weekly outdoor lab session at local parks and field stations. Special attention will be paid to the ecology of the Hudson River, including field trips and work involving the Sarah Lawrence Center for the Urban River at Beczak.

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Previous Courses

Evolutionary Biology

Open , Seminar—Spring

What biological processes led to the development of the incredible diversity of life that we see on Earth today? The process of evolution, or a change in the inherited traits in a population over time, is fundamental to our understanding of biology and the history of life on Earth. This course will introduce students to the field of evolutionary biology. We will interpret evidence from the fossil record, molecular genetics, systematics, and empirical studies to deepen our understanding of evolutionary mechanisms. Topics covered include the genetic basis of evolution, phylogenetics, natural selection, adaptation, speciation, coevolution, and the evolution of behavior and life history traits.

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Microbiology

Intermediate , Seminar—Spring

Prerequisite: successful completion of General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution or permission of the instructor.

Humans are bathing in a sea of microbes. Microbes coat our environments, live within our bodies, and perform functions both beneficial and detrimental to human well-being. This course will explore the biology of microorganisms, broadly defined as bacteria, archaea, viruses, single-celled eukaryotes, and fungi. We will study microbes at multiple scales, including the individual cell, the growing population, and populations interacting with one another or their environments. Microbial physiology, genetics, diversity, and ecology will be covered in depth. Particular emphasis will be given to the role of microbes that cause infectious disease in humans and microbes that play critical roles in ecological processes. Seminars will be supplemented by a weekly lab section to learn key microbiological techniques and methods, most notably culturing and identifying bacteria.

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Field Research in Ecology and Environmental Science

Advanced , Seminar—Fall

Prerequisite: successful completion of at least one course in biology, with a laboratory, or permission of the instructor.

What are the processes that maintain biological diversity? How has biodiversity been altered by human actions? This research seminar addresses these fundamental questions in community ecology and environmental science while training students in field research methods. The seminar will consist of a series of research projects that quantify biological diversity in local habitats and consider how anthropogenic changes, such as urbanization and species introductions, have modified biological communities. Using sources from the primary literature, students will develop targeted research questions and design experiments to be carried out in local field stations and nature preserves. Experimental design, field identification, and data analysis skills will all be developed. Students should expect to participate in 4-5 trips to local field sites during the scheduled laboratory time.

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General Biology Series: Genes, Cells, and Evolution

Open , Lecture—Fall

Biology, the study of life on Earth, encompasses structures and forms ranging from the very minute to the very large. In order to grasp the complexities of life, we begin this study with the cellular and molecular forms and mechanisms that serve as the foundation for all living organisms. The initial part of the semester will introduce the fundamental molecules critical to the biochemistry of life processes. From there, we branch out to investigate the major ideas, structures, and concepts central to the biology of cells, genetics, and the chromosomal basis of inheritance. Finally, we conclude the semester by examining how these principles relate to the mechanisms of evolution. Throughout the semester, we will discuss the individuals responsible for major discoveries, as well as the experimental techniques and process by which such advances in biological understanding are made. Classes will be supplemented with weekly laboratory work.

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Giving, Taking, and Cheating: The Ecology of Symbiosis

Open , Seminar—Spring

From gut flora of animals to fungi living in tree roots, symbioses are important and widespread throughout the natural world. We can broadly define symbiosis as different species living together in a close association of any nature, from mutualism to parasitism. In this seminar course, we will explore how symbioses are developed, maintained, and broken down and consider the scientific challenges to understanding the function of such associations. We will read and discuss papers from the primary literature exploring a broad range of taxonomic groups, including fungus-farming ants, bioluminescent bacteria living in squid, figs and their wasp pollinators, parasitic butterflies, and sloths and the moths that live in their fur. We will place a special emphasis on mutualisms, or interactions in which both partners benefit—unless, of course, one cheats. We will also think carefully about how to design scientific experiments to understand the nature of symbioses and design and carry out class experiments on mutualisms between plants and nitrogen-fixing bacteria.

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General Biology Series: Ecology

Open , Seminar—Fall

The natural world can be beautiful and inspiring but also can be challenging to understand mechanistically. Ecology is the scientific study of how organisms interact with the environment. Ecologists might ask questions about how plant growth responds to climate change, how squirrel population size or behavior changes in response to acorn availability, or how nutrients such as nitrogen and phosphorous cycle in rivers and streams. In this course, students will develop a strong foundational understanding of the science of ecology on the individual, population, community, and ecosystem scales. Throughout the course, emphasis will be placed on how carefully-designed experiments and data analysis can help us find predictable patterns despite the complexity of nature. Students will be expected to design and carry out a field experiment in small groups. The course will include a weekly lab section, with most labs held outdoors at local parks and field stations.

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Additional Information

Selected Publications

“When is a parasite not a parasite? Effects of larval tick burdens on white-footed mouse survival”

Co-authors: Michelle H. Hersh Shannon L. LaDeau M. Andrea Prevital Richard S. Ostfeld

The Buzz About Bees

Michelle Hersh

Read about Michelle Hersh's "Global Change Biology" course in Sarah Lawrence Magazine