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Dr. Colleen J. Nolan

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When Dr. Colleen Nolan was a child growing up on a farm in southwestern Washington State, everyone thought she would become a veterinarian. It is a dream Nolan, professor of biology and dean of the School of Natural Sciences and Mathematics, ended up not pursuing, but spending her childhood on the farm did influence the career path she took—teaching and working with students.

“It allows me to help prepare the next generations of leaders and help them have strong skills in their field, but also to instill characteristics of a liberal arts education—strong critical thinking, reasoning, and teamwork skills, the ability to interpret things from multiple perspectives, looking at problems and solutions locally, nationally, and globally,” Nolan said.

Nolan, who has a B.S. from Washington State University, an M.S. from the University of Idaho, and a Ph.D. from Texas A&M University, did her graduate research in reproductive endocrinology, a choice that was also influenced by her childhood on the farm.

“One of the things that sparked my interest when I was growing up, and when I was going to college, is how in large animals and even in people, the reproductive system can turn on and off in response to a variety of factors,” she said. “One of the things that is really intriguing to me is the fact that low nutrition can actually shut down reproduction. That’s a problem for farmers and ranchers because it decreases their animals’ productivity and as a result the farmers’ ability to earn a living.”

As a graduate student Nolan researched how nutrition impacted reproduction in cows after they gave birth and at the onset of puberty. She did postdoctoral work at the University of Michigan where she first began studying reproduction at the molecular level.

“I looked at genes regulating the steroid hormones that are involved in reproduction,” she said. “And in a secondary role, I looked at how environmental contaminants influenced reproduction.”

Nolan’s interest in research continues at Shepherd, where she’s worked with Dr. Carol Plautz, associate professor of biology, investigating how the commonly used weed killer glyphosate, the main chemical in Roundup, affects reproduction, learning, and memory in pond snails.

“So for me it’s almost coming full circle, coming back into research, but now working with a colleague,” Nolan said. “It’s also a really wonderful thing for me personally because I can help mentor students and excite them about research and the impact research can have.”

Nolan said so far the research she and Plautz have done shows the snails are less fertile, they produce fewer offspring, and their development is negatively impacted when they are exposed to the chemical. She pointed out that she and Plautz are exposing the snails to much higher concentrations of glyphosate than humans would be exposed to in their drinking water. But she said humans could potentially be exposed to such high concentrations if there is a rainfall just after the chemical has been applied or if there are fields draining into a lake or water system.

“What we’re seeing are impacts on the snail, and if you look at the snail as a model system, we are asking if those same effects could occur in people or other animals,” she said.

“So for me it’s almost coming full circle, coming back into research, but now working with a colleague. It’s also a really wonderful thing for me personally because I can help mentor students and excite them about research and the impact research can have.”

Nolan enjoys conducting research, but didn’t have as many opportunities to establish a research program during the time she spent at St. Mary’s University in San Antonio, Texas, where she taught before coming to Shepherd. She said the fact that she is able to work with faculty and students at Shepherd on the snail research has an impact on how she approaches her job as dean.

“By being active in research, the challenges, the opportunities, the joys, and the sorrows of what research is all about at a primarily undergraduate institution are fresh in my mind,” Nolan said. “That freshness allows me to speak from multiple perspectives as I’m working with faculty, as I’m advancing different initiatives, and as I’m being the advocate for the faculty and the students in the sciences. It gives me, for lack of a better word, the credibility to say ‘hey, these are things that I am doing.’ So it’s not talking from the hypothetical, it’s talking from the actual.”

Encouraging a research mentality

Since coming to Shepherd in 2009, Nolan has tried to encourage and support faculty and students who want to conduct research.

“If we look at the research activity and the number of students involved, I would say we have taken big strides,” she said. “It’s a great thing because it gives our students, especially those interested in attending graduate school, more opportunities and practical experience working both in the lab and in the library on specific research topics.”

Nolan has been a strong advocate of applying for grants to purchase lab equipment and support research. She is co-director of the Shepherd University Research Corporation (SURC), a nonprofit corporation that works with faculty, staff, administration, business, and industry to find funding for research.

“I think over the last five years we’ve really worked to advance and enhance the grant culture,” Nolan said. “We’re more successful in terms of the number of grants we apply for and the diversity of funding opportunities we explore.”

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Nolan said SURC has been successful in helping to get science grants, West Virginia Higher Education Policy Commission grants to support teacher education, National Endowment for the Humanities money for summer institutes, funding from the Health Resources Service Administration to support nursing education, and diversity grants from the HEPC for student affairs as well as grants in other areas. SURC has also been working with faculty and staff to apply for grants from foundations. She said in the sciences alone, SURC has brought in more than $3.5 million in the past six years to support faculty and student research, travel, and outreach to middle school girls to inspire interest in science, technology, engineering, and math.

Nolan said SURC helps Shepherd reach its goal of providing a high-quality, high-impact education for students.

“In these times when the state is decreasing funding for higher education it means that faculty members can pursue new scholarly activities and also engage students, it means we can provide equipment and support services for our students, and it also helps the faculty members remain engaged in their current research interests,” Nolan said. “When we think of research activities at a university like Shepherd, that frequently involves students.”

Best in show

When she’s not conducting research, raising money, and fulfilling her duties as dean, Nolan enjoys working with her two Spanish water dogs, Ariosa Fundy Bay It’s A Wonderfullife (usually called Z) and Angel Kiss the S’Kai de Ariosa (affectionately called Kai). Nolan has had dogs her whole life—going back to her childhood growing up on a farm.

“One of the greatest joys and some of my fondest memories were my horse, my dogs, and me just going out for the day and sometimes overnight,” she said. “So having dogs has always been central to my life.”

A white border collie was her companion through college and graduate school, and she said as time went by different dogs came into her life. When she came to Shepherd, Nolan met Carol Plautz’s Spanish water dogs and fell in love with the breed. That’s when her interest in dogs rose to the next level, and she decided to get a purebred and compete in American Kennel Club (AKC) companion events.

“What I have found is having Z and Kai gives me that nice balance,” she said. “I work almost every day with both Kai and Z, and I work with a trainer in Martinsburg.”

Nolan, Z, and Kai compete in AKC obedience and rally trials. As of November 2015, Z earned her Open obedience title—referred to as the Companion Dog Excellent—and had previously earned her Beginner Novice and Novice Obedience titles, the Rally Novice title, and the Canine Good Citizen Award. Kai completed her Canine Good Citizen Award, she earned her Beginner Novice and Rally Novice titles, and received a conformation championship. Both dogs earned AKC Community Citizen Awards (also called Advanced CGC).

“It gives me a chance to go out and do something else, meet other people, and establish new friendships,” Nolan said. “It also gives me a chance to spread the word about education, how it has impacted my life, and how education can help set the next generation up for success.”

Nolan said in the next five years or so she would like to travel more and accomplish more with Z, who Nolan would like to see compete in national obedience competitions, a first for the breed. Nolan’s goals also include having Kai compete at the Westminster Dog Show. (Having recently earned her championship, Nolan said Kai is going to be given time to mature mentally and physically and also work toward more obedience and rally titles before going back into the show ring.)

While showing dogs is a relatively new hobby, as a child Nolan showed cattle and sheep, which were judged mainly on conformation, or how they looked. She enjoys competing with her dogs in the obedience and rally trials because they require more of a team effort where she and the dogs are judged on how well they work together.

“I would say it’s more like gymnastics or diving, and shows like Westminster are more like a beauty pageant,” she said. “So I’m less about the beauty pageant and more about the precision and the teamwork—you and your dog.”

Listen to the interview with Colleen Nolan HERE.