Researching AUM:  Chelsea Ward thinks amphibians 'toadily' rock

Photos: AUM biologist Dr. Chelsea Ward in her office.

Photo Nick Thomas

Inset: A red-eyed tree frog at the La Selva Biological Station in Sarapiqui, Costa Rica, in 2007.

Photo: Chelsea Ward

While most people tend to shy away from creepy crawlies, Chelsea Ward is attracted to them.

“There are tales of me camping with my family and finding a hibernaculum – a place where creatures seek refuge – of garter snakes,” Dr. Ward recalled from her childhood, and is now a professor in the Auburn University at Montgomery Department of Biology and Environmental Science. “Evidently, I returned to camp with most of them on my head and neck, like Medusa!”

She remembers regularly coming home from school and heading off to go fishing and explore nature.

“Frogs, snakes, and lizards were all commonplace in different aquaria in my room,” she said. “So biology has been integrated into my being from very early on. I don't ever remember wanting to do anything else.”

In graduate school, she developed an interest in teaching.

“Watching my advisor during office hours was eye-opening and I have a vivid memory of her taking a sharpie to her arm to diagram and explain muscle contraction to several students who were having difficulties understanding the lecture on the topic,” she said. “I loved teaching and was really good at it.”

Recognized as an AUM Distinguished Teaching Professor several years ago, Ward continued her research which has focused on studying how changes in the environment can affect the immune system of amphibians.

“Animals in temperate zones tend to have very different responses to change than tropical organisms,” explained Ward who has especially enjoyed collaborative work with students over the years.

I'm most proud of the papers I published with them,” she said. “One was the direct result of a project that started in my immunology lab course where we successfully showed how insects that have eaten certain plants can affect the immune system of toads.”

As head of the Biology and Environmental Science Department for the past 6 years, Ward’s focus has turned to administrative duties where she has developed an interest in studying how hands-on learning in lecture and lab can affect a student's ability to understand and retain content.

“I’m currently working on two large projects – founding a new research and education institute on campus collaborating within three colleges and developing a new mentoring model in the College of Sciences.”

But she still maintains an interest in amphibians which includes escorting AUM biology students on field trips to Costa Rica.

“I’ve seen explosive breeding frogs, caught a beetle the size of my hand, and floated down a river with giant turtles,” she recalled.

On a global scale, she emphasizes how amphibians have been bearing the brunt of environmental change.

“Many populations have been affected with diseases that emerged in the last 50 years due to changes in the physiology of the animals and the virulence of the pathogens,” she said. “We are seeing similar patterns in reptiles and birds. Understanding how the immune system is affected by small changes in the environment is also important in predicting how humans may become susceptible to infection.”

This susceptibility has become shockingly clear with the current COVID-19 pandemic, creating unimaginable challenges everywhere including academic institutions. Like most colleges and universities around the country, AUM will be offering classes exclusively online this summer.

“As an administrator, much of my time was spent working with students and faculty when they dropped by my office, but that communication has now transitioned to online and by phone,” says Ward. “But whatever additional challenges we face in the upcoming summer classes, we’ll address them.”

Nick Thomas teaches at Auburn University at Montgomery (aum.edu) and has written features, columns, and interviews for over 800 newspapers and magazines (getnickt.org).