Mehus: Providing an educational vector for biology

September 12, 2018

“Science is literally everywhere you go, every day, and all the time.”

Once the young Joseph O. Mehus heard that sentence as a high schooler, the world of science took on a whole new meaning. Spoken to him by his Hatton High School Science Teacher, David Hedland, Mehus found a new outlook within himself – the ability to apply a higher level of “big picture” thinking to any area of study.

According to him, it’s a notion that struck a chord. Now, Dr. Joseph O. Mehus, assistant professor of Biology and N.D. INBRE Researcher, helps to continue that outlook by sharing it with students at Mayville State University, where he is entering his sixth year at his alma mater.

Mehus found the opportunity to come back to MaSU when he was finishing his doctoral work in biology at University of North Dakota. While there, he discovered that there was going to be an open faculty position at MaSU and after a bit of research, applied to the school where he had received his Bachelor of Science in biology.

It’s here that Mehus is able to apply his extensive experience to the education of students, continuing on the big picture message that his high school teacher instilled in him.

“Now I try to get students to recognize that science surrounds them, it encompasses them, and it plays a role in everything from the cells they are made of to the neurotransmitters that influence their mood and behaviors,” Mehus said. “The best part of teaching biology is that I get to discuss the topics and ideas in an area of science that I find the most interesting and are part of every single person’s day whether they know about it or not. I also love to watch students grow personally, emotionally, and intellectually as they learn to apply concepts and facts to the everyday situations around them or troubleshoot to figure out why an experiment didn’t work, and to embrace learning about the wonderful diversity of plants, animals, humans and cultures that make up the world.”

While he enjoys all aspects of biology, his background in vector-transmitted diseases, vector ecology and population dynamics, and parasitology keep special places in his world, which mostly revolves around instruction, but includes oversight on undergraduate research. In the cases Mehus looks into, the vectors are arthropods that transmit diseases from wildlife to humans, and from humans to other humans. Think deer ticks and the pathogen Borrelia (Lyme disease), or mosquitoes and the pathogen Plasmodium (malaria) or a virus, such as West Nile, and one will understand a bit about Mehus’ wheelhouse of study.

“Because of my dedication to research in pathogens/parasites, my favorite courses to teach are Invertebrate Zoology, Parasitology, General Ecology, and any of the anatomy and physiology chapters focused on blood and the immune system,” he said. “I also enjoy discussing the endocrine system and reproductive biology.

Outside of that instruction, he’s able to expand students’ big picture outlooks through a research lab where he supervises three undergraduate research assistants. In that role, they focus on bioaccumulation of cadmium in local food webs. According to Mehus, that research is student driven, which allows students to hypothesize, design experiments, search literature databases, troubleshoot, analyze and present results in local, regional, and national scientific conferences.

In the past six years, the Biology Department has seen some positive changes, said Mehus, including continued online offerings like Anatomy and Physiology I and II. All classes still have lab components, and encourage students to think critically and provide in-depth answers instead of the more somewhat routine “fill-in-the-blank” options.

“The Biology Department as a whole has also undergone some fantastic changes that include the addition of numerous new courses such as Human Parasitology, Immunology, and Evolution… all courses that were not previously offered on our campus,” he noted. “The addition of these new courses allows for students to branch out and take elective courses that they have, for many years, never had the opportunity to participate in during their endeavor to achieve their goals. This allows us to offer a couple of different tracks for Biology majors… one in health/medical sciences, and another in wildlife and research careers.”

Outside of his work in biology, Mehus has worked to design cross-curricular assignments and assessments within the Division of Liberal Arts in collaboration with Professor Lonamalia Smith, specifically in Sociology 110, Introduction to Sociology, dealing with the social construct and scientific viewpoint of race.  Mehus and Smith have also collaborated in Smith’s Sociology 355, Drugs and Society course, in the areas of addiction and neurobiology. These assessments and activities also were utilized in Mehus’ Anatomy and Physiology courses at Mayville State University.

In addition to teaching/course development, he is also a member of the North Dakota State University’s Institutional Animal Care and Use Committee (IACUC) which oversees its institution’s animal program, facilities, and procedures. According to Mehus, there are many more hats to be worn than just “teacher.”

He has served as the Division of Science and Math’s faculty senator and during that time reviewed numerous policies dealing with academics and faculty issues. He has been a co-advisor to the MaSU Science Club for three years, which has seen increased participation by science majors in the club, as well as student-community interactions. With the help of co-advisor Jeff Hovde, Mehus as written grants to rejuvenate a long-forgotten resource, the Mayville Nature Trail, which gives local clubs, schools, and universities that chance to utilize a great scientific, educational resource that has been previously underutilized. According to him, the Science Club has also participated in numerous community events to include fundraising, helping out with local vendor shows, and participating in science fair judging at Sacred Heart School in East Grand Forks, and the STEM Carnival that is hosted by our Division of Education.

Mehus is also active in MaSU’s Office of Diversity and Inclusion (ODI).

“Under the guidance of Dr. Dina Zavala-Petherbridge, the ODI has worked extremely hard to bring to light issues surrounding our under-represented students,” Mehus noted. “This year I have been trained as a Safe-Zone Ally trainer. In addition to that, I was also selected by one of our students of diverse backgrounds as an employee Mentor who played a role in our student’s educational careers. I have never felt so honored to be chosen, by one of my students, as someone who helped them achieve one of their major life goals, it is extremely humbling.”

Additionally, he was on the planning committee for the Great Plains Affirming Campuses Conference, which was hosted by MaSU this past year.

“This conference addresses issues related to campus inclusion of LGBTQIA+ students by gathering folks of the community and allies from our area for advocacy,” he added. “Last year, I was a panel member for faculty and students in which we discussed issues of advocacy within the classroom and student interactions with faculty and other students. I am also on the HLC committee at MaSU and have also put together the review of the Biology Program.”

He concluded that although MaSU was relatively small, there were large opportunities for students.

“The Division of Science and Math is strong, with well qualified faculty members that offer research opportunities that, during my undergraduate time, were not offered to students previously, forcing us to search out research opportunities at the larger research institutions within North Dakota, now our students can gain these experiences in-house,” he said. “These areas of research cover the realms of botany, zoology, developmental biology, ecology, toxicology, biochemistry and enzyme kinetics. The lab opportunities are extremely beneficial to students who are looking into medical or research careers.”