Spring 2024 Issue:

Faculty Focus

A Conversation with

Sara McClelland

Sara McClelland

Illustration by Colleen O’Hara, Spring 2024

The highlight of my day as a kid was playing outside, climbing trees, and catching any animal I could get my hands on,” says Sara McClelland, assistant professor of biology. No surprise then that she followed an academic path in biology. She teaches courses on organismal biology (zoology, vertebrate anatomy, animal behavior) and physiology (ecological physiology, conservation physiology), as well as courses that are part of the first-year curriculum. In addition, she offers a course in Costa Rica as part of Moravian’s Elevate program. Students learn about a different culture and gain experience studying animals in their natural habitats and collecting original data as part of a course-based research experience.

How did you become interested in biology and your particular area of interest and expertise?

I have always loved science and animals. My favorite school field trips were to the science center and to the zoo. Even as a kid, I remember wanting to read all the signs I saw and being fascinated by the lives of animals.

Throughout high school, however, I lost interest in academics. I didn’t even want to go to college, but due to my parents’ insistence, I went. (As an aside, students find it quite amusing that I didn’t want to go to college, and that has helped me make connections with some of them.) Once in college, I was torn between majoring in biology or physics, but chose biology because I thought a long-term career working with animals would be interesting.

In college, I fell in love with being in the lab. The hands-on nature of lab work fit my learning style, and I would find myself losing track of time when I had to think about how to set up an experiment or draw conclusions from the data that were biologically meaningful. I also had a great mentor, Dr. Ken Rastall, who saw something in me and gave me the confidence to consider an academic career; he really changed the trajectory of my life.

Throughout college, I remained interested in studying any aspect of animal biology; however, as I learned more about habitat destruction and biodiversity loss, I realized that I wanted to understand how human actions were impacting wildlife. This led me to pursue graduate work and remains the focus of my research.

Tell us about your current research.

My main research interest is understanding how human actions impact wildlife. Specifically, I am interested in how anthropogenic (human-caused) changes to the environment affect animal physiology. To study these questions, I mainly look at how frogs respond to different types of water contaminants such as chemical pollutants like pesticides or physical pollutants like plastics. Frogs are ideal for this work because they have a lot of the same biological processes as humans. Frogs also make great biological indicators because, like a canary in a coal mine, whatever is happening in nature affects them first, and if the problem isn’t addressed, we’re next!

How does your research intersect with your teaching in the classroom and/or student research?

One of the things I love about my job is that I get to teach courses that are highly aligned with my research, enabling me to bring my own research into the classroom. We are currently facing the sixth mass extinction on the planet, with biodiversity loss happening at an unprecedented rate. By bringing my own research into the classroom, including through course-based research experiences, I can demonstrate some specific examples of how changing environments affect animal biology and how conservation efforts can help restore environments and slow, stop, or even reverse population declines.

I also have an active program of mentoring undergraduate research students in my lab, an experience that is becoming more and more important for any field of work within biological science. I work alongside students as they develop a research idea, design and conduct experiments, collect and analyze data, and form conclusions. These students may do a semester-long independent research project, complete an honors project over two semesters, or participate in highly immersive summer research through Moravian’s Student Opportunities for Academic Research (SOAR) program. Moravian’s students are extremely lucky to have so many wonderful programs that support undergraduate research. I have watched multiple students fall in love with research and am always encouraging more students to get involved.

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