Biomechanics researcher joins faculty

Professor Laura Macesic EkstromLaura Macesic Ekstrom has joined Wheaton as a new tenure-track assistant professor of biology. Her main area of research involves investigating how animals use their bones and muscles to prepare themselves to absorb large forces.

“To do this, I use toads as a model organism because ‘what goes up, must come down.’ Toads are excellent jumpers and are excellent at landing as well,” says Ekstrom. “This research is important because it gets at the basic understanding of vertebrate musculoskeletal function. We can only go so far with human experimentation, so using model organisms to further investigate basic behavior can help us better understand ourselves and many other animals.” 

Ekstrom landed at Wheaton after spending the past two years as a Howard Hughes Medical Institute Postdoctoral Fellow at Mount Holyoke College. The professor received a bachelor’s of science degree with honors in biology from McMaster University in her native Hamilton, Canada, and earned a Ph.D. in integrative biology from Florida Atlantic University, where she had served as a teaching assistant for many years.

She was drawn to Wheaton because it seemed like it would be the perfect fit, she says. “After being at Mount Holyoke College, I knew I wanted to be at a smaller, teaching-focused school, where teaching was really valued. I knew that this was true at Wheaton after speaking with faculty members and students in biology. I was also thrilled about the new Mars science building and the general feeling that my research would be well supported within the college.”

Talia Lopez ’13 and Nicholas Hebda ’14 consult with Professor Laura Macesic Ekstrom during a lab.

Ironically, Ekstrom originally had no intention of going into teaching. “I don’t come from a family of academics—my dad and brother run their own electrical company, and my mom is a medical secretary. I thought I would be a scientist at a nonprofit lab or in the government, but when I started being a teaching assistant for classes in graduate school, I knew I never wanted to lose that experience. My mom, on the other hand, always knew I’d end up a teacher—moms always know.”

In a recent lab in her “Introductory Physiology” course, Ekstrom had a natural ease about her as she moved around the room answering the questions of students engaged in dissecting the brains of sheep to learn general anatomical terms related to the brain.

“I believe that it is really valuable for students to not only learn the necessary facts, but to also learn skills—for example, in scientific techniques, communication and problem solving,” the professor notes when asked what she wants most for her students. “Those skills are extremely useful both within the scientific community and in the ‘real world.’ Ultimately, my goal is to make thinking like a scientist easy and natural for them. I hope my students come away from my classes with a lot of knowledge, but with even more questions.”