David Benson Inspires Students with research Opportunities and Hands-On Learning

by Katie Bradley | Feb 08, 2013

When it comes to research, David Benson, Ph.D., professor of biology and director of research and the Nina Mason Pulliam EcoLab, shares the wealth.  He involves his students in his research through data analysis, publications, and lab and field work.

Already this year, seven of his current and former students will be published in The Proceedings of the Indiana Academy of Science for their research on beaver canals.

Of course, Benson’s research is not done exclusively for the benefit of students. He is a scientist and research is an important and necessary part of his career.

“This research keeps me relevant as a teacher. It helps me stay current in my field and excited about science. My hope is that this rubs off on my students,” Benson said.

Climate Change and the Ptarmigan

For nearly 20 years, Benson has been studying White-tailed Ptarmigans (pronounced tär-mi-gən) a small grouse bird found in the mountains of western United States, Canada, and Alaska. He spends his summers studying these birds at Glacier National Park (GNP) in Montana, where he also serves as Park Ranger, leading hikes and teaching visitors about the beauty and wonder of the park.

Benson sees first hand, the changes taking place and says, “critters have three options in a changing climate: they can move, they can adapt, or they can die.”

In the case of the White-tailed Ptarmigan, Benson has found that they do all three.

Along with Matthew Cummins, Benson explores his research on the ptarmigan’s response to climate change in his paper, “Move, Adapt, or Die: Lagopus leucura Changes in Distribution, Habitat, and Number at Glacier National Park, Montana.”

According to his paper, “Our study examines how White-tailed Ptarmigan in GNP have responded to the rapid changes in the distribution of perennial snow and water in terms of alterations in late summer flock locations, habitat preferences, and local population numbers.”

Benson’s research suggests that Logan Pass (the location he explored within GNP for his research) has become a less suitable habitat for ptarmigans, indicated by the rising temperatures and the shrinking population of the birds in the area.

However, Benson also found that the ptarmigan has adapted by living in areas further away from snow and water (the amounts are decreasing)  than they were even 10 years ago. They are moving, adapting, and dying.

Why is this important?

“Ptarmigan are canaries in the coal mine of changing climate. From seeing how ptarmigan deal with global warming, we’ll be able to better understand how other species will be affected,” Benson said. 

Student Research

As director of the EcoLab, Benson has created an environment rife with opportunities for hands-on experience and research. The EcoLab is used in many of Marian University courses, including all environmental science courses and some biology, history, writing, and art classes.

For example, the restoration ecology course is taught almost completely outdoors using the outdoor laboratory to teach ecological theory that students at other schools learn exclusively from a textbook.

“Getting students actively involved in actual science is extremely important to their development as scientists. It is the best way for them to learn how science gets done,“ Benson said.

Students have also done major research projects on the development and function of beaver channels, the connection between water quality and turtle health, the effects of honeysuckle removal on native vegetation, the chemistry of ground and surface water, the impact of Jensen’s 1912 landscape design on current vegetation, and many other topics.


Benson not only gives his students research projects, but he trusts and believes in them enough to include them in his own projects. In fact, Sam Jordan, a Marian University student who will graduate this spring, has spent the last two summers doing fieldwork in Glacier National Park with Benson, helping Benson find, capture, and tag the birds.  

“Research is a vital part of any degree in college, especially a science degree. Research is what made me passionate about science and gave me real-world, hands-on experience. As a student, it is hard for me to grasp an idea taught in the classroom without applying it in the field,” Jordan said

Jordan became a part of this research project when he enrolled in a summer program through the Institute for Green and Sustainable Science here at Marian University.

“This program gave me the opportunity to broaden my learning experience and transition from learning in the classroom to learning in the field,” Jordan said.    

With all of the research being done by students, on and off campus, before and after graduation, there is little doubt that Benson’s enthusiasm for science has spread to his students. 

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