Illinois Association of Community College Biologists
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Fall 2022 Speaker Bios

Dr. S. Jay Olshansky received his M.S and Ph.D. in Sociology at the University of Chicago in 1984. He is currently a Professor in the School of Public Health at the University of Illinois at Chicago, Research Associate at the Center on Aging at the University of Chicago and at the London School of Hygiene and Tropical Medicine, and Chief Scientist at Lapetus Solutions, Inc.  
The focus of his research to date has been on estimates of the upper limits to human longevity, exploring the health and public policy implications associated with individual and population aging, forecasts of the size, survival, and age structure of the population, pursuit of the scientific means to slow aging in people (The Longevity Dividend), and global implications of the re-emergence of infectious and parasitic diseases. Dr. Olshansky is on the Board of Directors of the American Federation of Aging Research; he is the first author of The Quest for Immortality: Science at the Frontiers of Aging (Norton, 2001) and A Measured Breath of Life (2013); and co-edited Aging: The Longevity Dividend (Cold Spring Harbor Laboratory Press, 2015). In 2016, Dr. Olshansky was honored with the Donald P. Kent Award from the Gerontological Society of America, the Irving S. Wright Award from the American Federation for Aging Research, and he was named a Next Avenue Influencer in Aging. 


Dr. Matt Von Konrat is the Head of Botanical Collections and is the McCarter Collections Manager, Bryophytes and Pteridophytes at the Field Museum.  He received his BSc and PhD in Biological Sciences from The University of Auckland, New Zealand.
His field of interest has focused on the systematics of pteridophytes and bryophytes, particularly liverworts. He is stimulated by the variety of disciplines that plant systematics has to offer including aspects of plant ecology & biogeography, conservation, reproductive biology, morphology, ultrastructure, and the use of chemical markers. He is also particularly interested in theoretical aspects relating to species concepts and biogeography and how our understanding of these relate to conservation biology and conservation management decisions. He has deep interests in collection management and digitization (databasing and digital imaging). He also has strong interests in citizen science, education outreach and the dissemination of knowledge using various forms of multimedia. 


Dr. Paola Mera is an Assistant Professor in the Department of Microbiology in the School of Molecular & Cellular Biology at the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign.  She received her B.S. in Chemistry and Biochemistry at the University of Colorado-Denver, and her Ph.D. in Microbiology at the University of Wisconsin-Madison.  She completed her Postdoctoral studies in Microbiology at Stanford University.
Dr. Mera's research program combines bacterial genetics, biochemistry, and high-resolution imaging in order to examine the progression of the bacterial cell cycle at the molecular and cellular level. Her lab's research aims at filling the gaps in knowledge to control the life cycle of bacteria so that they can design better ways to enhance the growth of the “good” bacteria and inhibit the growth of the ones that cause disease.

Dr. Rob Rhykerd is a Professor in the Department of Agriculture at Illinois State University.  He received his B.S. in Agronomy and M.S. in Soil Science at Purdue University and his Ph.D. in Soil Science from Texas A&M University.
Dr. Rhykerd is part of a team of researchers that are working to rapidly domesticate pennycress using cutting-edge genetic approaches. If successful, pennycress, sometimes called a wonder weed, could become a commercially grown oilseed-producing cover crop with the potential to be an economic benefit to farmers and an environmental gift to the world. Thlaspi arvense, commonly known as pennycress or field pennycress, is a non-food member of the mustard family that’s been mostly ignored by farmers. However, if Dr. Rhykerd and his colleagues are successful in their efforts, that view may change. The importance of pennycress is in part due to its potential to produce billions of gallons of biofuels while removing carbon dioxide from the atmosphere as it grows. In addition, winter planting of pennycress could lessen soil erosion and nutrient runoff, a major source of pollution in the Mississippi River basin, which cuts a massive swath through the middle of the country. Dr. Rhykerd's research is part of a project known as Integrated Pennycress Research Enabling Farm and Energy Resilience (IPREFER). It is a team effort by multiple institutions across several Midwestern states and is being funded by grants from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and the Department of Energy.

Dr. Andy Alt is a drug discovery scientist who is best known for his research on G protein-coupled receptors and ion channels.  Dr. Alt earned his Ph.D. in Pharmacology from the University of Michigan and completed post-doctoral training at the Indiana University Medical School.  Dr. Alt has over 15 years of experience working on early-phase drug discovery research in both “biotech” (Arvinas, EPIX Pharmaceuticals) and “big pharma” (Bristol Myers Squibb, Pfizer and Eli Lilly) prior to returning to academia as the Director of the Center for Chemical Genomics at the University of Michigan in 2018. 
Opioid drugs are notorious for their abuse and addiction liability, as well as their ability to produce respiratory depression which can be fatal. Over 75,000 people died from opioid overdose in 2021 in the U.S. alone.  Despite their problematic side effect / safety profile, prescription opioids remain the “gold standard” treatment for pain; because other, safer, drugs simply do not have the analgesic efficacy that opioids do. “Positive allosteric modulators” of opioid receptors produce analgesia by amplifying the effects of the body’s natural analgesic molecules (peptides such as enkephalins and endorphins) rather than by directly activating opioid receptors. Drugs that work through this novel molecular mechanism may provide analgesia similar to prescription opioids but without the abuse, addiction, and respiratory depression associated with opioid use.

Alison Bell is a Professor in the Department of Evolution, Ecology, and Behavior, an affiliate in the Carl R. Woese Institute for Genomic Biology, and a member of the Neuroscience and Ecology, Evolution and Conservation programs at the University of Illinois Urbana-Champaign. Alison earned her B.A. in History, Philosophy & Social Studies of Science & Medicine from the University of Chicago and her Ph.D. in Population Biology from the University of California, Davis, where she was also an AAUW Postdoctoral Fellow.  She was further a NSF Postdoctoral fellow at the University of Glasgow. 
Research in the Bell lab is focused on understanding why individual animals behave differently from each other. Even an individual fish, for example, behaves differently from other fish, through time and across situations. They study the proximate and ultimate causes of individual variation in threespined stickleback. 
Threespined sticklebacks (Gasterosteus aculeatus) are small fish that have proven to be a powerful model system for identifying the genetic mechanisms that underlie adaptive morphological evolution.  But sticklebacks are also famous for their rich behavioral repertoire. For example, male sticklebacks aggressively defend nesting territories and are the sole providers of parental care that is necessary for offspring survival. Some individual sticklebacks are more willing to take risks than others, and the way an individual stickleback behaves toward competitors, predators, mates and offspring directly influences fitness and has a heritable component. Many of the axes of natural behavioral variation studied in sticklebacks have parallels with human behavioral variation, e.g. risk taking behavior, sensation seeking, extraversion and aggressiveness. Moreover, the system is tractable: sticklebacks can be readily drawn from the wild and measured in reliable behavioral assays, large sample sizes are feasible, and they can be crossed and reared in the lab. In other words, sticklebacks have many of the advantages of traditional model organisms with the added advantage that we can study them in a wild state.

Michelle Zurawski is a Professor of Biology at Moraine Valley Community College where she teaches General Education Non-Major Biology Courses with a lab and Majors Biology Courses with a lab on campus, hybrid and fully online; and Introduction to Marine Biology with field work in Belize. Michelle has been a past President of the Illinois Association of Community College Biologists (IACCB) and current Scholarship Coordinator. Michelle facilitates Introduction to Sustainability online workshops through the MVCC AASHE (Association for the Advancement of Sustainability in Higher Education) Midwest Regional Center. At MVCC, Michelle created Greening Your Curriculum, a year and a half sustainability professional development program for faculty across the disciplines that was exploration-based and equivalent to a 3 credit hour graduate course and Michelle has been an educational consultant in sustainability for NASA, Jobs for the Future, and the National Wildlife Federation.