Dr. Naji’s Field Trips Drive Home Lessons on Biological Diversity

Biodiversity is a common ecological term, but how many of us truly grasp the gravity of its power to sustain life at every level?

If you are a student of Josephine Naji, Ph.D., Associate Professor of Biology at Kent State Geauga, you won’t just learn about the concept through reading assignments, research and lectures. Dr. Naji drives home her lessons on biological diversity with up-close, in-person, hands-on field trips out in nature and among the prehistoric exhibits at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History.

It is when students are learning to identify ephemeral spring wildflowers at Herrick Fen in Streetsboro, or keying out tree leaves to identify tree species at Twinsburg’s Liberty Park in the fall, that they begin to grasp the intricate diversity and complexity of interdependence among common plants as well as the value of forest communities.

It is after immersing themselves in different ecosystems and among natural history exhibits that students gain a better understanding of how every living organism is one part of many layers of interdependency among the species. If one aspect of the web of life gets thrown off balance, each species along the entire web experiences related reverberations. 

This dinosaur at the Cleveland Museum of Natural History is a focal point for students to see evidence that supports evolution firsthand

Dr. Naji discovered the foundational principle of biological diversity when she studied biology at Hiram College. This understanding deepened while earning her master’s degree in microbiology from Louisiana State Medical Center in New Orleans. She then earned her Ph.D. in molecular/cellular biology from Kent State University/NEOUCOM.

After initially focusing on cellular biology research at the Cleveland Clinic, Dr. Naji started teaching in a college nursing program and has been devoted to teaching ever since. She has taught at Kent State Geauga for 15 years, offering courses in Biological Diversity, Biological Foundations, Basic Microbiology, Lab Experience in Biology, Human Biology, and Life on Planet Earth.

In each course, Dr. Naji teaches that scientific facts demonstrate that life at every level — from genes to species to ecosystems — can be explained by the concepts of evolution and biological diversity.

“Evolution is the foundation of all modern biology,” says Dr. Naji. “You have to accept that, based on facts from the fossil record. You can see it up close at the Natural History Museum. Exhibits show how life progressed from single cell organisms into complex multicellular organisms. Seeing the skeletons of the prehistoric amphibians at the museum brings it all to life. Or witnessing amazing connections between the T-Rex and the chicken… They have a similar bone structure, believe it or not. Students are pretty amazed by that.”

When it comes to biodiversity, this universal concept involves the interdependencies of all the different living organisms on earth. Dr. Naji breaks it down into three parts: 1) genetic diversity, 2) species diversity, and 3) ecosystem diversity. At each level, communities of organisms thrive (are healthier and more sustainable) when they are rich in diversity. On the flip side, when they reduce in number and type, leading to monoculture, they are no longer strong enough to survive when threatened by a predator, virus, flood or other attack.

“Each organism depends on so many other organisms to survive and prevent extinctions,” Dr. Naji explains. “Everything is interconnected.”

Simply put, without biodiversity, the entire support system for human, animal and plant life would collapse. Because biodiversity is so crucial to the future survival of all life on earth, its imbalances can be expressed by species population spikes and extinctions, habitat losses, floods, wildfires, droughts, storms and other effects related to climate change.

“At the rate we’re going with habitat destruction and global warming, we are close to the tipping point and we need to take action — with corporations and governments taking the lead — to protect the environment and its species for future generations,” warns Dr. Naji.

“At an individual level, I try to give my students an appreciation for this earth and the world around them. Seeing things on field trips and getting out of the classroom provide opportunities for them to relate to it. If you appreciate nature, you’re more likely to help save it.”

POSTED: Monday, October 10, 2022 08:53 AM
UPDATED: Friday, December 09, 2022 06:54 PM
Estelle R. Brown