Fall 2010 / Spring 2011

Photo: Kelsey Wright (BA '10)
Photo: Kelsey Wright (BA '10)
“I find it really rewarding to help people learn because science doesn’t need to be annoying, confusing, and full of vocabulary,” she says. “Science is interesting and you need it in order to be a normal, functioning person.” -Dr. Davis-Berg

Read a Q&A with Dr. Davis-Berg about her new Honors Course, "Evolution of Sex."

Science, Snails, and Video Games

Dr. Beth Davis-Berg combines her love of science with her interest in games for students in the Department of Science and Mathematics.

Dr. Beth Davis-Berg recalls the moment she realized she’d found her new home in the School of Liberal Arts and Sciences at Columbia. It was moments after walking into a classroom for the first time and posing to the students a single question: Can mosquitoes transmit the HIV virus?

“I said, ‘talk to your neighbor and figure it out,’ and the whole class actually did it,” Dr. Davis-Berg says. “Watching a class full of twenty [students] immediately start talking to their neighbors and trying to figure it out to me was just perfect. I loved the audience.”

Since coming to Columbia’s Department of Science and Mathematics in 2005, Dr. Davis-Berg, who is an assistant professor in the department, has created and taught several courses, including “Marine Biology,” “Biomechanics,” and “General Zoology.” This Fall, she’s teaching a course called “Evolution of Sex” for the newly created Honors Program in LAS. In this course, students will explore sexual selection, evolution, different sexual behaviors, and then create sex advice columns from the perspective of insects, plants, or animals.

By adopting unique approaches to teaching various fields of science, Dr. Davis-Berg has established herself as one of Columbia’s most interesting fulltime faculty members. After all, no one else at the college is a snail expert. (She’s one out of about forty such experts in the country.)

Dr. Davis-Berg completed her undergraduate degree in Biology (with a specialization in Ecology and Evolution) at the University of Chicago. From there, she went to the University of Kansas and earned a PhD in Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, where she became interested in snails and studied their biomechanics, behavior, and ecology. “I’ve become a bit of a land snail expert,” she says. “I don’t pick organisms to study; I pick questions. I was looking to answer questions about biomechanics and how snails follow mucus trails. I like snails as a study group and will continue to study them.”

Even though she loves teaching science to non-science majors, becoming a scientist wasn’t what Dr. Davis-Berg originally had planned. In high school, she was heavily involved in the arts, playing the clarinet and directing her school’s spring theater show as her senior project. It wasn’t until she went to college that she decided to devote her time to science. “I probably could have gone the arts and music route,” she says. “[But] I realized that I wasn’t going to be good enough, and it turns out that teaching is like acting. It really is like improv because you need to keep the class interested.”

In addition to using creative teaching methods, Dr. Davis-Berg is an active gamer. She’s been playing World of Warcraft (WoW), a “massively multiplayer” online role-playing game, since December 2005 and has more than twelve characters in WoW. Her favorite game is the original Legend of Zelda for Nintendo.

But Dr. Davis-Berg’s interest in games extends beyond the virtual worlds she inhabits: She incorporates gaming into her work as a scientist and professor. She’s lectured on Spore, a game that allows one to create an entire population from a single cell, and, in her “Biomechanics” course, she combines some of the science behind games into the curriculum. Required for game design majors, the course also improves students’ lateral thinking abilities.

“That part I find really useful, because you have to think outside the box to work your way around whatever problem the game master has given you,” she says.

Although she is an active and devoted gamer, Dr. Davis-Berg’s top priority is sharing her knowledge of science and making it accessible to students, some of whom haven’t always found the subject interesting. “I find it really rewarding to help people learn because science doesn’t need to be annoying, confusing, and full of vocabulary,” she says. “Science is interesting and you need it in order to be a normal, functioning person.”

Click here to read a Q&A with Dr. Berg about her Honors Course "Evolution of Sex."