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Title: Assistant Professor
Best Office Artifact: “Bufo Springfield”
From working with over 5,000 animal skins and skeletons to coming face-to-face with a jaguar in the Amazon rainforest, Carthage biology professor Angela Dassow has experienced an amazing career in her fields of ecology and entomology thus far.
Professor Dassow has an extensive research background and spent decades with the Wisconsin DNR and a natural history museum in Madison. She is currently continuing her study of white-handed gibbon behavior at the Racine Zoo as a part of the Carthage Summer Undergraduate Research Experience (SURE).
We spoke with Professor Dassow about her road to Carthage, experience living in the Amazon rainforest, and snack of choice (insects).
How did you become interested in ecology and entomology?
“I became interested in ecology and entomology early on in life. As a child, I used to help my great-grandfather care for his honey bees and I would spend hours watching them collect pollen and return to the hive. I was fascinated by their behaviors. I also spent a lot of time raising tadpoles, catching snakes, and playing with earthworms. You know, girly things.”
“As I grew up, my love of the outdoors continued to develop. In high school, I became involved in an independent study run through the Wisconsin DNR. Once every other week, I traveled to the Sandhill Wildlife Area and learned how to track wolves, porcupines, and deer. It was so enjoyable that I ended up staying on all summer and learned how to trap and track Blanding’s turtles, snapping turtles, and painted turtles. I continued this for over a decade.”
What was your journey to becoming a professor at Carthage like? Why did you choose Carthage?
“It was a bit of a winding road. I double-majored as an undergraduate student in Wildlife Ecology and Entomology so I could continue working with wildlife, but the career opportunities were very limited and were temporary positions. Because of this, I chose to continue down the other path I had started which was as a curator and preparator for a natural history museum. I spent 10 years at a museum in Madison and prepared over 5,000 skins and skeletons and 2,000 fluid specimens of various animals. I think one of my favorite stories is about Pinkie the hippo, but that is too much of a digression from the original question so I will leave that a mystery.”
“The museum career was great, but in order to advance in that career path I needed to have an M.S. or Ph.D. so I went to grad school. I took on teaching assistant positions to offset the cost of grad school and discovered that I really enjoyed teaching. As I got closer to defending my dissertation, I began searching for openings at liberal arts colleges and Carthage happened to have an opening for an ecologist.”
Could you talk a little about what you hope to achieve with your research into white-handed gibbons and the methodology behind your work?
“The goal of my research is to determine what linguistic properties are shared between gibbons and humans. We can ultimately use this to further our understanding of vocal evolution. To be able to work towards these goals we have been coding units of sounds and examining the sequences to find patterns that are associated with specific behavioral activities. This approach employs methodologies from the fields of linguistics, ethology, and computer science. Over the past few years, we have discovered that gibbon use both referential and motivational sequences to warn about predators. Motivational vocalizations are a type of excited utterance, such as a brief gasp a human may make when they walk into my office and are startled by what they see. Referential vocalizations have a more specific meaning. For gibbons, a referential sequence can be used to announce the presence of a snake or clouded leopard. Currently, we are trying to understand what aspects of their communication may be learned versus innate.”
How important is research from ecologists in helping to increase awareness or improve environmental issues like the fishing “dead zones” you mentioned in your Op-Ed “What I learned in Puerto Rico?” What role do ecologists play in the fight for a better environment?
“We identify problems and advocate for social change. Some people inherently understand the importance of preserving diversity and others are content ignoring all evidence presented to them because it conflicts with what they want to believe or it is inconvenient for them to acknowledge a glaring issue unfolding in front of them. These aren’t the people I focus on because their minds are already made up. It’s the ones who fall in between who we, as ecologists, can work with to find solutions to the problems we are seeing as ecosystem health continues to decline. Seeking truth matters to some of us.”
What do you hope students take away from your courses?
“I hope they take away an appreciation for why some of us study ecology. I don’t want to convince them to become ecologists, but I do want them to understand how their actions and choices in life impact the environment and how that relates to their career choices and personal health.”
How have you pushed students beyond their comfort zones?
“I feed them insects. I also like to give them open-ended questions in class and let them debate the topic. There are a couple of peer-reviewed papers we cover in ecology that focus on tool use in primates. One paper is an instance of a captive chimp picking up a willow branch and knocking a drone out of the sky. Another is about a capuchin who used a stick to pick his nose. There are a lot of questions that can be posed here, but a few key points are whether each example can be considered tool use and if so, why is that important. We’ve had many interesting discussions on this topic over the last couple of years, but you are probably still stuck on the insect thing and that’s ok.”
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“One day the jungle fell silent and I turned around and found myself face to face with an adult male jaguar. They are shockingly large when they are that close.”
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What are some hobbies or interests you have that may be surprising to students?
“I am an avid motorcycle rider. I have a Harley Davidson Sportster 1200 and I put about 5,000 miles on each year. This year, my main trip took me out east to visit Maine, New Hampshie, Vermont, Connecticut, New York, and Massachusetts. I placed second for longest ride completed at our women’s only biker rally.”
“I also spent 4 months living in the Amazon rainforest when I was in grad school. It’s a surprisingly safe environment to live in other than the jaguar that snuck up on me. Most of my time was spent exploring the jungle and I met a nice couple of Ameiva lizards that I started to visit on a daily basis. One day the jungle fell silent and I turned around and found myself face to face with an adult male jaguar. They are shockingly large when they are that close. I’m still here so you know how that story ends.”
“The Amazon is also where I began my other interest of eating insects. We occasionally had to forage for food, and since insects are abundant and one can only eat so many piranha, insects became a nice alternative. I mostly ate katydids there, but since then, I have expanded my diet to include dozens of other species. My favorites are black ants, mealworms, scorpions, and bamboo worms. The bamboo worms were a recent treat that I was privileged to have after receiving a special invitation to join a group of researchers in Madison for a 3-day event called Swarm-to-Table. Celebrity chef Joseph Yoon flew in from the Bronx to make us a 12-course meal of insects. It was an amazing experience.”
Any favorite moments or memories from your time at Carthage so far?
“I started here in 2015 and I have been lucky enough to receive some very thoughtful gifts from my students. One year I received 10 Madagascar hissing cockroaches. They quickly reproduced and now we have two lovely colonies. Another year, I had about a dozen students gather around my office door beaming with delight to give me the gift of a freshly dead muskrat. They had it all nicely packaged in a shoebox. It was quite sweet—if you are me. I recognize that not everyone would consider that a gift, but I do.”
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“Come meet us! College can be intimidating, but we are here to help guide you and we want to see you succeed.”
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What advice do you have for new or prospective students interested in Biology?
“Come meet us! College can be intimidating, but we are here to help guide you and we want to see you succeed. We don’t have all of the answers, but we can talk through whatever concerns you have about what types of opportunities are out there for careers in biology.”
“We also have some great clubs such as the Biology Club, CURE, and the Entomology club that I would recommend joining. It is a great way to meet other students who can help make your experience here a positive one.”
— Interview by Madeline Paakkonen ’21