Featured Professor: Debby Walser-Kuntz

April 8, 2011 at 3:28 pm
By Nick Welna

Prof. Walser-Kuntz

Professor Debby Walser-Kuntz, Biology

“My students would write wonderful research papers,” remembers Biology professor Debby Walser-Kuntz. “But the problem was, I was their only audience.” As an undergraduate student, Prof. Walser-Kuntz was drawn to working on social justice issues and was always concerned with what lay outside of the academic world. She then earned her masters in education, hoping to connect academic knowledge to social justice. Once she became a professor at Carleton, Prof. Walser-Kuntz reflected on the hard work her students had put in to their papers, and decided to get creative with her assignments. “I first imagined my students writing for a K-12 audience, because of my past experience in education. They would take their research papers on the biological questions that most interested them, and then write them in a way that tenth graders could understand. Then, they could not only learn something important from their research papers, but they could also show students in high school what’s possible when you study biology in college.”

But getting students of all ages excited about learning biology was just the start for Prof. Walser-Kuntz. She looked for ways to broaden the impact of her students’ work, and started making connections with community groups whose work relates to biology, in preparation for the Immunology class she taught this winter. She already had connections with Northfield Middle School, and chose to partner with the seventh grade life science classes taught by Amy Allin and Katrina Meehan. She then joined forces with two outstanding local public health organizations: the HealthFinders Collaborative, a free clinic for Rice County’s low-income and uninsured residents, and Growing Up Healthy, a county-wide coalition of groups focused on improving the health of marginalized families by increasing community connectedness. Bringing together the middle school, HealthFinders, and Growing Up Healthy mean that her students would develop three interrelated projects to learn about immunology.

With the life science class, the students explored the impact of exercise on the immune system. With the Academic Civic Engagement office’s VISTA, Lynsey Bernfeld, Prof. Walser-Kuntz wrote a grant to get pedometers and heart rate monitors for the seventh graders. She worked with the life science teachers to create a project where middle schoolers could use the materials to answer their own questions about how exercise affects the body, creating and carrying out their own research projects. To guide them, Carleton Immunology students created an orientation packet and curriculum, giving background information on exercise and the immune system. Understanding the cutting-edge biological research well enough to make it accessible to seventh graders was no easy task, but doing so meant that the Immunology students helped several classrooms of young people realize what they can discover through science.

Prof. Walser-Kuntz also arranged for another group of her students to partner with HealthFinders by researching diabetes. Working with Charlie Mandile, the clinic’s executive director, she found that her students could participate in HealthFinders’ ongoing diabetes educational program by preparing materials for a presentation in April to community members with diabetes. The presentation is a part of a series of monthly events for participants in the diabetes program, who also receive free medical supplies and monthly check-ups. Prof. Walser-Kuntz is challenging her students to think about practical questions like what causes diabetes, how it affects your body, and what steps you can take to improve your health if you have diabetes. She expects the presentation to help students learn how to communicate useful information about diabetes to non-scientists and help the participants improve their health. Additionally, students have learned about the importance of groups like HealthFinders for community members whose chronic conditions or low incomes limit their access to health care.

The last group of students has partnered with Growing Up Healthy to research asthma in Rice County. Chemistry professor Deborah Gross taught an academic civic engagement class during the fall trimester and had her students measure air pollution in homes, schools, and workplaces around the community, and her students met with the Immunology students to discuss the results of the measurements. The students in Prof. Walser-Kuntz’s class then researched asthma’s environmental causes and how it affects the immune system, and presented their research jointly with Prof. Gross’ students at a Growing Up Healthy event this March. Professors, students, and community members came together for dinner and a conversation about the students’ research and how it can help families stay healthy.

Prof. Walser-Kuntz’ class was especially remarkable because of the connections it created. While each group of students developed their own area of expertise, they found many links between their projects: exercise has a significant impact on the likelihood of a person having asthma or diabetes, and a person who has asthma is more likely to have diabetes. Additionally, the community partners strengthened their relationships with Carleton, and now have plans for more academic civic engagement projects. One opportunity stands out in particular: the Rice County Public Health department just applied for a grant to address the environmental causes of asthma, and hopes to have Carleton students do academic civic engagement projects that contribute research and community education materials.

Coordinating three projects for one class was no small feat for Prof. Walser-Kuntz, who is also the chair of Carleton’s biology department and civic engagement committee, as well as the college’s faculty leader for Project Pericles, a national service-learning organization. But she is dedicated to making the lessons of community involvement a part of what she teaches her students. “If you want to be a scientist, you need to be able to communicate what you’ve learned about important scientific issues, so people can make evidence-based decisions,” she explains. “If you want to be a doctor, you need to be able to help patients understand how they can be healthy.” Above all, she thinks academic civic engagement provides a unique learning experience. “When you can explore what you’re interested in and do something meaningful with it,” Prof. Walser-Kuntz says, “that’s what learning is all about.”