Independent Study


The spring 1971 issue of the Alumnae Quarterly celebrated the independent academic work of Mount Holyoke students and featured articles written for the magazine by students in Elizabeth Green’s journalism class. Acting Dean of Studies Isabelle Baird Sprague, class of 1937, introduced the series in the front of the magazine, saying, “Independence in academic work has long been recognized as both a goal and a method in the educational process” and that the selected essays “give some idea of the variety and depth of independent study being pursued by today’s undergraduates.” The following transcript of a profile of Joann Otto ’71 by Susan Wanlass ’73 is one of a dozen included in the series.

A sign on Joann Otto’s door in 1837 reads, “If I’m not in my room, the chances are 99.9% that I’m in Clapp.” There she shares an office with another girl also engaged in independent study in biology.

Before 8:00 in the morning, Joann often packs a lunch and is off to her office. She is studying the neuroscecretory cells of an insect known as the water strider. She is trying to determine whether there is a cycle of neurosecretion which helps to control the life cycle of the insect.

To understand the differences caused by the seasons, Joann periodically makes collections of the water strider from a nearby lake. Some of the water striders are refrigerated, and groups of these are removed periodically. In a group of fifteen water striders, she will kill five immediately, five in three weeks, and five in six weeks, so she can study the state of the neurosecretion as the stages evolve.

Joann uses a chemical which stains the neurosecretions, so she can determine both how much is released and how much is stored by the insect at a certain time.

Mrs. Isabelle Sprague, Joann’s advisor, had suggested that Joann study these “water skippers” or “Jesus bugs,” as they are known in the South. Joann has become so involved with science courses that she finds it difficult to squeeze in anything else, but, she reports laughingly, “Mrs. Sprague makes me take one non-science course per semester.” Last semester she enjoyed working as a teaching assistant in field zoology.

A senior this year, Joann plans to do graduate work in biology. After earning her Ph.D., she would like to teach college biology.

View more content from the Winter 2017 100th anniversary issue of the Alumnae Quarterly.

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