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Katherine Rentschler


Student Degree


Student Major

Biology - Environmental Biology track

Student Hometown

Pinehurst, NC


I transferred to UNC Pembroke from Drew University and Sandhills Community College in 2014. I started college as a biological anthropology and music double major in 2010, but had to drop out after my freshman year because of unfortunate financial circumstances. For the next three years I worked full time to save money and take courses at the local community college. During that time, I became very ill and I did not think I would ever get the chance to finish my bachelor’s degree. Then, a neighbor and close friend suggested applying to UNCP. I applied during the spring of 2014 and was happy when I found out I would have a chance to complete my bachelor’s degree.

Knowing not to take my education for granted, I worked very diligently and tried to seize every opportunity available to me. I became involved in research and extracurricular programs such as RISE and COMPASS. I was also able to get involved with hippocampal electrophysiology research at UNC Chapel Hill through the SPIRE undergraduate summer research program. I like the fact that I am appreciated for my efforts despite my socioeconomic status, and I have been able to push myself to make a difference in the academic community at UNCP. During my time here, I have become interested in environmental neurotoxicology, and in taking environmental biology courses with biomedical, psychology and chemistry based electives. In addition, I work in the William C. Friday Laboratory under the mentorship of Dr. Ben Bahr. The research I am involved with primarily focuses on Alzheimer’s drug discovery.  I hope to eventually get a PhD degree in either neuroscience or toxicology, focusing on the role of neurotoxins in neurological and psychiatric disorders.

Why Did I Choose UNCP?

I chose UNCP because of the small class sizes and research opportunities. Also, it is relatively close to home and offers a vast array of courses in biology and chemistry.

What Do I Like Most About UNCP?

The thing I like most about UNCP is the opportunities that are available in the STEM majors. I also enjoy the fact that the faculty members are generally supportive and want to see you succeed, allowing you to be able to realize your future goals and dreams.

What Are My Post-graduation Plans?

I plan to apply to several different schools in North Carolina and the northeastern United States. I have started applications for neuroscience PhD programs at UNC Chapel Hill and Duke University. I also plan on applying to East Carolina’s Environmental Health graduate program. A couple other schools I am considering are Penn State University and University of Cincinnati, which have cognitive neuroscience programs.

 Katherine Rentschler and Bahr Lab Katherine Rentschler and Bahr Lab

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Dr. Crystal Walline Joins Biology Faculty

Dr. Crystal Walline

Assistant Professor Crystal Walline received her Bachelor of Science in Experimental Psychology with a minor in Chemistry from Millikin University (IL). She then earned her PhD degree in Medicinal Chemistry and Molecular Pharmacology from Purdue University. Additionally, she completed the requirements for the Integrated Program in Neuroscience. For her graduate research, Dr. Walline used molecular biology and neuropharmacology techniques to investigate the structure and function of the serotonin transporter (SERT), the protein target in the brain for antidepressants (e.g. Prozac) as well as drugs of abuse (e.g. cocaine and amphetamines).

For her postdoctoral studies, Dr. Walline wanted to gain experience in translational research, where experiments seek to translate basic scientific findings into therapeutic interventions and to increase understanding of important disease processes. Having acquired an interest in understanding the immune system, she completed two postdoctoral fellowships in immunology at the Indiana University School of Medicine. The first studied the involvement of various cells and chemicals in the development of Multiple Sclerosis (MS), a disorder where immune cells attack the myelin sheath that protects the brain and spinal cord. The second postdoctoral fellowship investigated the way in which the innate and adaptive branches of the immune system work together to regulate pulmonary (lung) inflammation associated with asthma and how respiratory viral infections aggravated signs and symptoms of asthma.

While Dr. Walline enjoys working in the lab, her passion is teaching and mentoring students. She taught as a Visiting Assistant Professor of Biology at Monmouth College from 2013-2016. Feeling the need to escape the brutal midwestern winters, she sought refuge in the beautiful state of North Carolina. Dr. Walline loves her cats (Asha, Connie & Baldur), using her hand and power tools to repair and build household items, and doing genealogy research. Additionally, she enjoys traveling, photography and learning about Viking history.

Dr. Crystal Walline (right) and studentDr. Crystal Walline (right) and student.

Article Submitted by Dr. Crystal Walline

Web manager's note: Dr. Walline joined the Biology faculty in fall 2016.  She is currently teaching undergraduate courses in Immunology and in Anatomy & Physiogy I.

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Dr. Andrew Ash presents Salamander Research for Highlands Conference

Dr. Andrew Ash

Although his field studies are conducted under cover of darkness, Dr. Andrew Ash’s research sheds new light on foraging patterns in salamanders of the southern Blue Ridge Mountains.  Dr. Ash has studied guilds of salamanders in mountain forests for more than 30 years.  Because of the nocturnal habits of his focal species, Plethodon metcalfi, he sets to work when most people are settling down for the evening.  Broad overlap in the diets of P. metcalfi and four co-occurring species of salamanders indicates competition for food.  Because of its large populations, P. metcalfi would appear to dominate these shared food resources.  Dr. Ash presented his research during the Special Highlands Conference on Plethodontid Salamander Biology.

Dr. Ash was one of more than 60 researchers who presented talks and posters for the conference, which took place over a four-day period (4-7 August 2016) at Highlands Biological Station in Highlands, North Carolina.  Nestled in the picturesque Blue Ridge Mountains, the station has hosted several plethodontid conferences during its 90-year history.  When still president of the Highlands Biological Foundation, Dr. Ash prepared the foreword to the 1998 plethodontid conference proceedings; in it he wrote that each conference “was characterized by exchange of information and ideas, as well as the formation of new friendships and the renewal of old ones. Events such as these are the milestones by which we measure our academic lives.”

Dr. Ash served on the Board of Directors and on the Board of Scientific Advisors for Highlands Biological Station for several years.  These positions were natural fits for him, given his many years of research based at the station.  His research papers on salamanders have appeared in such peer-reviewed science journals as Conservation Biology and Journal of Herpetology

Having strong ties to the environment, Dr. Ash was instrumental in designating the Lumber River as a National Wild and Scenic River and in launching the Environmental Science program at UNC Pembroke.  In recent years, he has served as Co-Principal Investigator of the National Science Foundation (NSF)-funded HERP Project that targeted school children in rural communities, offering them hands-on opportunities to study salamanders, snakes, frogs, and other herps.  He served formerly as Chair of the Biology Department.  Today, his main teaching responsibilities for the Department include Principles of Ecology, Biogeography, Biometrics, and Soils and Hydrology.

Dr. Andrew Ash and corn snake
Dr. Andrew Ash shows children a colorful corn snake

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Archive for 2015-2016

Dr. Maria Santisteban Aids Science Learning in Public Schools (2016)

Dr. Maria Santisteban and Moore County teachersDr. Maria Santisteban (holding bottle) and Moore County school teachers enjoy a light moment

For the past two years, professors at UNC Pembroke have enriched the science curriculum for Moore County schools.  Dr. Maria Santisteban is one of a handful of UNCP professors involved in the Math Science Partnership that brings Moore County teachers to campus for two weeks in the summer. On campus, 55 teachers from elementary and middle schools (17 of Moore County’s 23 public schools) rotate through hands-on activities in the life sciences, earth sciences, and physical sciences.

Dr. Maria Santisteban demonstrates photosynthesis exerciseDr. Santisteban demonstrates a photosynthesis exercise

Dr. Santisteban shares her expertise in the life sciences, and she develops instructional materials and kits that enable teachers to develop lesson plans and student activities. Preparation of materials demands a big investment of her time. Dr. Bill Brandon and Prof. Sailaja Vallabha (Chemistry and Physics Department) handle the physical sciences, and Drs. Martin Farley and Daren Nelson (Geology and Geography Department) handle the earth sciences.  Dr. Santisteban and other faculty members disseminate more information during the academic year by visiting partner schools and by participating in seven workshops held at the Community Learning Center in Carthage. As Director of the UNCP COMPASS Scholarship Program, Dr. Santisteban provides a host of out-of-classroom STEM experiences for COMPASS scholars.

Dr. Martin FarleyDr. Martin Farley provides instruction in the earth sciences

The Math Science Partnership is the result of a three-year grant “More Alignment of Science Standards (MASS),” which is designed to bolster teachers’ knowledge of content and to improve student success in the classroom.  The UNCP campus was a natural choice for the partnership, given its strong science programs and its existing ties to Moore County Schools. 

Top two photographs are courtesy of Mildred T. Bankhead-Smith Ed.D. Bottom photograph is courtesy of Maria Santisteban. 

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David J. Pedersen


Student Degree


Student Major


Student Hometown

Honolulu, HI


My interest in science started early in life. In fact, it was more of a general curiosity exhibited by most young children. Thankfully, my parents encouraged my need to know how things worked and why they worked. Growing up I enjoyed watching Mr. Wizard (revealing my age now...), a television show about a scientist performing various experiments for school-aged children. As I transitioned to junior high school, I discovered a deeper love for science while dissecting frogs. Then in high school I enrolled in an honors biology course where I learned more about biological processes with more dissections.

While traveling down my academic road, I met a few detours, many of them near graduation. I took the scenic route for about 15 years, as I worked diligently in the automotive industry. It was over the course of those years that I rediscovered my interest in science and found that my contribution for society lay in the field of medicine.

After trading a surfboard for a TI-84 calculator, I packed up my belongings and boarded a plane for California. A month prior I had shipped my truck to Los Angeles. Upon landing in LA, I loaded up my truck and drove across America. My mom still lived in North Carolina, and she asked me to move back in with her. She has been my number one supporter!

I started my college experience at Fayetteville Technical Community College. It was a nice place for a non-traditional student to ease back into the rigors of education. I spent one year there adjusting to the atmosphere: learning how much the Internet has transformed schooling. It was a welcome break from working 70 hours per week, but being a full-time student required some lifestyle changes. Thankfully my zoology professor, Mr. Martin, shared a flyer with me about COMPASS at UNC Pembroke. Joining this research-based program would grant me privileges to a vast network of scientific communities. Almost equally important, it would fund the remainder of my undergraduate years!

Transitioning from FTCC to UNCP was exciting, but it brought a set of new challenges. With the guidance and support from Dr. Santisteban, the Principle Investigator for COMPASS (and a passionate biology professor), I have thoroughly enjoyed my experience here. Dr. Poage, my COMPASS mentor as well as a biology professor, has provided me with sage advice over my semesters in Pembroke.

Why did you choose to attend UNCP?

It has small class sizes and is close to home. Plus, my sister Ginger loved her experience at UNCP!

What do you like best about UNCP?

The professors express sincere interest in helping students succeed.

Please comment on your research experiences.

I spent 10 weeks at The Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine (WFIRM) this past summer. This experience was priceless as I was able to work with MDs and PhDs from abroad and from America. They were polite and professional as they helped me apply the concepts I learned at UNCP. This hands-on pedagogy reinforced my education from the labs and classrooms. With all of the challenges opposing organ transplants, stem cell therapy and bioprinting organs appear to be the best alternative strategies available. I feel that I made a meaningful contribution to the lab at WFIRM and trust that the research I performed will promote the advancement of these novel ideas to improve the quality of life for people around the globe.

What are your post-graduation plans?

I will attend a physician assistant (PA) program after graduating from UNCP. I began studying paramedicine in January 2014, and I have been working as a paramedic with Hoke County EMS. The more patients I treat in the prehospital environment underscores the need for educating our neighbors on the importance of their health. My dream job would allow me the flexibility to see patients in a primary care setting while continuing my research on stem cell therapies and bionics. I view the role of a PA as a utility player in the arena of healthcare. I will be called upon to perform a variety of services from psychology to surgery. I want to prepare myself and my team to provide preeminent care to patients in our community, our country, and beyond.

David Pedersen and researchers at Wake Forest

From left to right: Nima Pourhabibi Zarandi, MD, David Pedersen, Dr. Maria Santisteban (Director of the UNCP COMPASS Program), and Hooman Sadri-Ardekani, MD, PhD, at the 2016 research presentation for Summer Scholars at Wake Forest Institute for Regenerative Medicine

Mentors profiles

Debby HanmerDr. Deborah Hanmer, Associate Professor of Biology, is a Plant Pathologist specializing in sustainable agriculture.  Since 2010 she has taught Principles of Biology and lab, Botany, Mycology, Plant Physiology, Natural History of Costa Rica, Pest Management, and Principles of Sustainable Agriculture. Dr. Hanmer was the leader to develop the Sustainable Agriculture track within the Environmental Science degree in fall 2012. Since 2008 she has formally mentored 6 undergraduate research students and informally mentored several others.


Maria PereiraDr. Maria Pereira, Associate Professor of Biology, is a geneticist with agriculture expertise. She has been at UNCP since 1998 where she has been teaching Principles of Genetics and Biotechnology (with labs) every semester. She has been the director of the Interdepartmental Biotechnology Degree Program since its inception in the Fall 2005. UNCP was the first university in the system to offering a B.S. in Biotechnology. She also teaches Principles of Biology, Development Biology, and Environmental Science.. A big portion of her career has been around curriculum development as well as university and community involvement. She created the Biofuels Project that she directed for two years.  Three areas composed that project, Outreach, Research and Biodiesel production. She was also involved in the implementation of the Recycling Program at UNCP. She was also a participant in the creation of the new B.S. in Sustainable Agriculture. Dr. Pereira is heavily involved in green systems such as sustainability, energy conservation and biodiesel production. She has been researching combinations of biodiesel production byproducts and plants, and more recently she has been involved in Aquaponics as Sustainable Model. As part of the Biotech program, Dr. Pereira has been involved in facilitating internships for 17 students in the program. She has mentored 9 students in undergraduate research.


Robert_PoageDr. Robert Poage, Associate Professor of Biology, is a neurobiologist. His research involves ion channel function, primarily voltage-activated calcium channels. He is currently investigating the role of the presynaptic environment on voltage-gated calcium channel function using the frog neuromuscular junction as a model system. Dr. Poage is the PI of the NIH-RISE grant. Hi teaches Neurobiology, Human Anatomy and Physiology I and II, and Animal Physiology. He has mentored 5 undergraduate students in research.


John_RoeDr. John Roe, Assistant Professor of Biology, studies wildlife interactions with their habitat, with the aim of helping to guide natural resource managers and conservationists in maintaining biodiversity.  He uses reptiles and amphibians as model organisms.  His current research focuses on examining turtle responses to prescribed fire in the longleaf forests of the North Carolina Sandhills region.  Dr. Roe teaches courses in Zoology, Ecology, Field Techniques, and Environmental Science.  He has mentored eleven undergraduates at UNCP, and several postgraduate students at The University of Canberra and Purdue University. 


Conner_SandefurDr. Conner Sandefur, Assistant Professor, is a citizen of the Chickasaw Nation, a southeastern American Indian tribe now located in south central Oklahoma. He investigates COPD and diabetes - diseases with high incidence in rural communities - through mathematical modeling and 'big data' analysis. He teaches Microbiology lab and Genetics lecture and lab. In his free time, Dr. Sandefur can be found fishing and spending time with his family and friends. You can visit his website at http://sandefur.oshehomaproductions.com/.


Rachel_SmithDr. Rachel Smith, Associate Professor of Chemistry, is a synthetic organic chemist; total synthesis of natural products and developing synthetic methods for pharmaceutical synthesis is her background.  She teaches Organic Chemistry I and II, General Chemistry I and II and Chemistry for Health Sciences I and II (for nursing majors).  She has mentored 12 students in undergraduate research over 12 years of teaching in higher education and served as academic advisor for more than 50 at UNCP.


Meredith_StormsDr. Meredith Storms, Associate Professor of Chemistry and Associate Dean of the College of Arts and Sciences, is an analytical chemist.  She teaches General Chemistry I and II (with the labs), Chemistry for the Health Sciences I and II, analytical chemistry, DNA analysis, and forensic chemistry. She has mentored over 25 undergraduates in research projects related to the analysis of pharmaceuticals in dosage form and biological fluids.


Cornelia_TirlaDr. Cornelia Tirla, Associate Professor of Chemistry, is an organic chemist. Her research focuses in the synthesis of organic molecules with biological activity. The objectives of this project are to identify possible drug candidates. This project is realized in collaboration with the biology department. Dr. Tirla teaches Organic Chemistry I and II, Health Science, Scientific Literature and General Chemistry. She has mentored 11 undergraduate students in research.


Erika_YoungDr. Erika Young, Lecturer, is a marine scientist.  She has taught General Biology, Human Biology, Biodiversity, Human Anatomy and Physiology labs and General Zoology.  Her background includes exploring the ecosystem services of salt marshes and trophic interactions of oysters, fish, and birds.  She has also studied freshwater ecosystems and insects.  She has taught at UNCP for a total of 8 years and was an undergraduate at UNC-P.  She also serves as an academic advisor.


Meg_ZetsMrs. Meg Zets, Lecturer of Biology, teaches introductory biology lecture and lab for biology majors as well as non-major courses.  She has been a full-time lecturer since 2007.  Although she does no research herself, she does try to link her COMPASS students to other researchers or internship possibilities.

Brandi Guffey: A Day in the Life of an Elephant Intern

Brandi Guffey and elephant at Zoo Atlanta Brandi Guffey and Kelly (African elephant) at Zoo Atlanta

Fortunately, this past summer I was granted the opportunity to work as an intern at Zoo Atlanta within the elephant department.  This included the care of elephants, warthogs, and meerkats. The internship lasted from the first week of May to the first week of August. I worked four, eight-hour days every week. This was an unpaid internship, but the experiences, knowledge, and networking that I gained this summer were more than I could have ever asked for.

My internship consisted of the maintenance and care of these animals: Kelly and Tara (both of whom were 33-year old female African elephants); Shirley (a 10-year old female warthog) and Eleanor (Shirley’s two-year old daughter); Prince (a 14-year old male meerkat and the father to the other meerkats); Scurry, Sniff, and Scarlett (all female meerkats); and Blaze (a male meerkat).

Each morning, the other elephant keepers and I would clean the exhibits, put out food, and set up enrichment activities to keep the animals active during the morning hours. Cleaning the elephant exhibit took the longest time because it was the largest exhibit. Not only did the waste from the yard and the barn have to be hauled out in wheelbarrows, but also these entire areas had to be raked, swept and hosed.  I normally had an orange tint on my legs first thing in the morning from raking red clay dirt.

Prince the meerkat warthogs
Above (from left to right): Prince (meerkat) and Shirley and Eleanor (warthogs)

Enrichment was always one of my favorite things. Enrichment activities within zoological facilities are vital to the well being of the animals. Meerkat enrichment was always a lot of fun because it usually involved changing around their zoo habitat or giving them crickets/mealworms inside an object, which they must manipulate to get to these insects. Warthog enrichment involved filling up their wallows with water. During the hot summer days, this was important because warthogs lack sweat glands and are unable to cool themselves. The warthogs wallow in the mud to cool themselves, and they coat themselves in mud, which acts as sunscreen/bug repellent. Elephants also lack sweat glands, so they wallow and throw mud on themselves as well. I helped with the popular enrichment activity of bathing the elephants to clean them and to cool them down. They especially loved getting bathed with a fire hose. During “elephant cardio,” two keepers would go outside of the exhibit with food and call the elephant back and forth across the yard. The elephant then received a treat of cut up celery, rutabaga, apple, carrot, etc. This was a good way to get the elephants engaged, exercised, thinking, and moving. Enrichment was great in building positive relationships with the animals, and when I could actually see the animals enjoying these activities, it made it worthwhile.

Each day was a different experience and not a single day was ever the same. One of my favorite activities was working with the elephants and giving them directions. This was usually done by verbal commands and body language. Both elephants knew about 65 different commands and signals that were used in their husbandry and care. Everything we required of the elephants was completely voluntary; we never forced them to do anything. It’s important to give them choices, given their high cognitive abilities. Cleaning and scrubbing their feet was messy, but fun and important.  Weighing the elephants twice a month was an interesting task, and it was fun to see the reactions of zoo guests when they realized just how much four-ton elephants weigh.  Both elephants were included in several research studies conducted by students from Georgia Tech and Emory University, and I was fortunate enough to help out in these studies.

One of my favorite summer activities was informing the public about the importance of each zoo animal, especially the elephants. I loved getting to talk to young kids who were fascinated by the animals. To see their faces light up when I talked to them about the animals reminded me of a young version of myself and what inspired me to be as passionate about the conservation of animals as I am today.

The best part of this past summer was probably the relationships I made.  The zoo staff were so willing and eager to help young college students such as myself to learn. I was able to network within the zoo. I was thankful to meet privately with the Director of Research, the Curator of Mammals, and one of the Associate Veterinarians. I could not recommend this internship any more highly to other people. I wish everyone could experience and learn all that I have learned. Elephants are in danger of going extinct in the future because of the ivory trade and poaching. I wish more people could witness their intelligence, individuality, beauty, and their importance to this planet.

Brandi Guffey and elephant at Zoo Atlanta Tara the elephant
Above (from left to right): Brandi giving an elephant a treat, and Tara loves to swim, and if we give her the right treat she will gladly go for a dip in the pool. This is bran mash in the tub, one of her favorites.

Kelly the elephant's painting

One of the enrichment activities we would do with the elephants is allow them to paint. This was a picture that I had Kelly paint. She held the brush in her trunk and moved it in a stroke-like motion. The splatters were made by using a wire siphon with paint on it and having her blow on the siphon to create a splatter appearance.

Watch Zoo Atlanta Youtube videos of meerkat diet preparation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Pnnq1IWdKXg) and elephant diet preparation (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=M192U98M2CM)

Web manager's note:  Brandi Guffey is in the UNCP COMPASS program. You can read more about her by visiting her "spotlight" on the home page for the Biology Department website.

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