Bianca Wentzell is deathly afraid of spiders.
It seems unusual for a wetland plant ecologist who spends so much time outdoors to suffer from Arachnophobia. But Bianca, an Assistant Professor of Biology at the College, traces her fear back to a 2010 field expedition in Kruger National Park, South Africa.
“I was taking anti-malarial drugs which have some hallucinogenic effects and I encountered many venomous spiders—wolf spiders, six-eyed sand crab spiders, black button spiders, and others—in my travels, almost every day,” she says. “It was the perfect combination to have vivid nightmares, which continued almost every night that summer, and I still get them occasionally to this day!”
However, nightmares aren’t enough to keep the scientist from her fieldwork research and protecting wetlands.
According to Bianca, wetlands are critical ecosystems that have been overlooked, taken for granted and destroyed over the course of human history. In the past 200 years, she says, the world has lost more than 50 percent of its wetlands.
“A lot of this has to do with lack of knowledge about the role these ecosystems play,” Bianca explains. “They serve as sponges to absorb flood waters, as kidneys to filter out pollutants before they enter rivers and lakes and oceans, and homes or refuges to countless organisms, many of which we rely upon for food.”
As a wetland scientist, advocate, and educator, Bianca wants to raise awareness of these ecosystems and learn more about protecting them and restoring those lost.
A member of the STAC faculty for the past three years, Bianca teaches courses such as General Biology, Plant Biology, and Literature Research in the Biological Sciences. Recently, she and a colleague from Kean University conducted a study in the New Jersey Pine Barrens where the New Jersey Conservation Foundation is working to restore retired cranberry bogs to their natural state as Atlantic white cedar swamps. The team went in with a group of students to research which restoration methods were working best.
“We found that it does not seem to matter what technique you use to restore bogs like this as long as you stop farming, make sure the hydrology will support wetland plant growth, and have a little patience,” she says. The study is the subject of a paper recently submitted for publication.
Bianca, who earned her doctorate in Biology at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and a bachelor’s degree from Siena College, has served on several committees, including the Society of Wetland Scientists Webinar Committee and the Wetland Ambassadors Committee, which she chaired. At STAC, she participates in the Executive Council of the Faculty Senate, the Sustainability and Climate Change Committee, and the Executive Councilor of Academic Standards. She is also an advisor for the Future Leaders in Healthcare Club.
She says that her work at the College has been rewarding. “Not only do I get to be a lifelong student as I continue my quest for knowledge about wetlands, but I also get to teach students about how life works and help answer their questions as they investigate the world around them.”
Bianca’s approach to teaching is guided by a college mentor who gave her a life-changing opportunity when she told him she wanted to do real, hands-on research. “Dr. Helm brought me into his lab and told me to ‘run a gel’—as the cool science kids say—with some heat shock protein samples taken from a plant called Arabidopsis thaliana,” she recalls. “I stood there wide-eyed with a tube of treated proteins in one hand and a syringe in the other, thinking it was crazy that he trusted me with the responsibility and wondering what I had gotten myself into.” Looking back twelve years later, Bianca says that is the day she became a scientist.
Ballet is another passion Bianca has had since her childhood in Albany. She danced with a pre-professional ballet academy and went on tour to perform in productions like The Nutcracker, Alice in Wonderland, and Peter and the Wolf. She also taught at the Albany Berkshire Ballet School for 10 years. Bianca still takes classes today and also enjoys Pilates, hiking, cooking, and spending time with her husband Scott, and son Julian.