Skip to main navigationSkip to main content
The University of Southampton
Biological Sciences

Going to the zoo

Published: 1 August 2008
Dr Joel Parker

Freshers' classification challenge

First year Zoology and Biology undergraduates now get an enjoyable and challenging start to their university careers, thanks to School of Biological Sciences lecturer Dr Joel Parker.

He’s won one of this year’s Vice-Chancellor’s Teaching Awards after coming up with an innovative practical exercise for first-year students at Marwell Zoo.

The freshers are divided in small groups and challenged to create a classification process known as a dichotomous key, a comparison tool that allows the inquirer to identify items in the natural world. They have to select 40 animals and work out how the species are similar and how they differ in key traits. Simple characteristics include whether they have backbones or antennae, three toes or four.

‘Everyone’s been to the zoo,’ explained Joel. ‘But normally you just wander around and look at the animals. I wanted to set a challenge and give our students a problem they would need to research, using biological classifications and terminology. The end result for each group is a completed key posted in “wiki” form on the Blackboard website.’

The day out at Marwell early in the autumn term also encourages the students to get to know each other and work effectively in teams. ‘Making practicals problem-based and giving the students a puzzle to solve always keeps their interest and encourages them to learn,’ said Joel.

Student Lily Searle was one of those taking part in the exercise.  "It was great fun making the keys and the trip to Marwell was definitely an experience”, she says.  “I made a few friends completing that project!"

Joel joined the School of Biological Sciences almost three years ago. He studied in his native USA and undertook postdoctoral work in Lausanne, Switzerland before moving to Southampton.

In research, Joel is particularly interested in how queens of common black ants live so long. ‘It has been observed that some social insects such as ants and bees can have long lifespans. Queens can live nearly 30 years while workers only live up to two years and males only a few months. Perhaps their way of life is important as the queens can be protected from outside pressures. Queens also reproduce a great deal and this may also be a factor,’ he said.

‘At a biological level, as all three types of ant share a genome, these differences in lifespan must be due to differential gene expression. How have social insects, and black ants in particular, resolved the metabolic and physiological problems associated with long lifespan? I am answering this question using molecular tools and genomic approaches that have been so successful in the traditional model systems such as fruit flies, the C. elegans roundworm and mice,’ he continued.

Joel always knew his career would lie in science. As a child in Oregon he was fascinated by nature and would catch and observe the local wildlife to understand more about them. He embarked on medical training at first, but became more interested in the biological side of the work and decided to specialise in this area.

A Teaching Award certificate will be presented to Joel at one of the Graduation Ceremonies in July and the Vice-Chancellor will also host a celebration for award holders later in the year.

Privacy Settings