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Sarah Orlofske – University Scholar Award

August 25, 2022
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Students in biology courses with assistant professor Sarah Orlofske learn critical thinking skills and the types of questions to ask in order to gain a better understanding of anything they are learning. 

“I hope they all learn how to ask good questions about what they are learning and can be critical of data,” Orlofske said. 

Sarah Orlofske
Sarah Orlofske won the 2022 University Scholar Award.

Questioning and collecting data started early for Orlofske. As a child growing up in Oak Creek, Wisconsin, she kept detailed journals about her observations raising frogs. She kept track of tadpole development, wrote about their eating habits, and noted when their legs started to grow. As early as age eight, Orlofske was already mindful that it was important to record her data. Orlofske’s curiosity and drive led her to get involved in biology research as a UWSP undergraduate. 

“For me, getting involved early helped me plan the rest of my career,” she said. 

Beginning as a first-year student, she was honored to work with retired professor Steve Taft until his retirement in 2004. Throughout her undergraduate career she participated in numerous projects in parasitology and herpetology, including studying amphibian and reptile biodiversity in Peru! 

After earning her doctorate in ecology and evolution at the University of Colorado-Boulder, in 2017 Orlofske joined the UW-Stevens Point Department of Biology. Part of her professional duties include curating the Stephen J. Taft Animal Parasitology Collection (named in honor of her former mentor) for the Museum of Natural History. The collection is home to more than 22,000 specimens across the diversity of parasite groups. 

In addition to the museum, she now manages an active UWSP parasitology lab of her own. Orlofske, and her team of student researchers, are on the hunt for new species of parasites as they painstakingly dissect waterfowl and birds of prey. Studying the parasites of wildlife can help to answer questions that are relevant for understanding human health. 

The high-level research on parasites beginning in 2018, from hosts collected around the state, including Green Bay and from host species at the Mead Wildlife Area, is now yielding a fruitful library of parasite specimens for current and future students. To acknowledge her major contributions in research and scholarship, Orlofske was awarded the UWSP 2022 University Scholar Award. Orlofske teaches incoming students the techniques they will use as they develop new projects and ask more in-depth questions.      

Returning to work with Orlofske in her Animal Parasitology Lab once again this fall is senior Roiya Meyer. Meyer explained that the Orlofske lab has always been a safe environment to explore and develop skills. 

“The lab and other research students truly feel like a second family and home,” Meyer shared. 

She has developed confidence in problem-solving and time management skills, beyond the technical side of her student lab work—data management, slide-making, dissections, and molecular work.   

Students studying biological specimen
Students in Orlofske’s classes find projects structured for a variety of backgrounds, from wildlife ecology to biochemistry.

“Professor Orlofske is great about giving us the tools to try and manage our own projects, and she gives us necessary encouragement or reality checks based on the ideas we have. She tries to give us as much independence within reason as possible, to help prepare us for what actual research and grad school are like if we decide to take those routes, and for that I’m grateful,” said Meyer. 

Orlofske ensures that projects are mostly student-run and structured for all backgrounds to thrive. 

For example, the molecular tools to identify parasite specimens may be more relatable to biochemistry students who might not have had previous exposure to wildlife ecology before working in the Orlofske lab but now see this new application. Likewise, students with general ecology interests begin to appreciate and understand how molecular tools and data can serve them in their future careers. In any case, the students better trust in their scientific identities and abilities through their exploration of interdisciplinary projects.   

“I try to plant the seed early that anyone can be a scientist,” said Orlofske. 

Orlofske and her husband, Robert Jadin, also a faculty member in biology, live on a small hobby farm, where lessons in animal biology learned from caring for their two miniature horses often become real-world examples in the classroom.