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Ceresco Prairie – A Living Laboratory
Ceresco Prairie – A Living Laboratory


Academics | Biology


Ripon College offers majors and minors in biology, chemistry-biology, and psychobiology, and a variety of pre-professional tracks in chiropractic medicine, dentistry, medical technology, allopathic and osteopathic medicine, physician assistant, nursing, optometry, pharmacy, physical therapy, corrective therapy, podiatry, and veterinary medicine. Students may also pursue a minor in environmental biology.

The study of biology at the College is dedicated to analyzing problems, reaching creative solutions, and communicating those discoveries. From your introductory course, you will be developing problem-solving skills by designing your own laboratory exercises and performing data analysis. In advanced courses, you will develop a broad base of biological knowledge and continue to learn critical laboratory skills.

Because biologists must be able to communicate their findings to others, all of your courses will emphasize written and oral communication skills. In Senior Seminar, you will work one-on-one work with faculty members as you utilize the knowledge you have gained across the curriculum. But research opportunities are not limited to Senior Seminar: students often conduct independent projects with professors in the sophomore or junior year.

Our graduates go on to pursue a variety of professions in the biological sciences, academia, medicine, and beyond. We are proud of our tradition of excellence in placing students at leading medical programs. Our acceptance rate to medical school in 2013 was 100 percent, more than twice the national average.


Mark Kainz

Memuna Khan


Dana Moracco

Barbara Sisson

Peggy Stevens

Robert Wallace


Facilities & Ceresco Prairie Conservancy

The greenhouse in Farr Hall has three climate-controlled rooms that allow us to raise temperate, tropical, and desert plants in their native conditions. Farr also features labs dedicated to cell culture, molecular and cell biology, microbiology, physiology, histology, aquatic research, and the study of animal specimen. Two laboratories for electron microscopy are available for student research projects.

Our botany, ecology, and animal biology courses use the on-campus 130-acre Ceresco Prairie Conservancy (CPC), which contains wetlands, savannah, and a large prairie restoration project.

A Brief History of the Ceresco Prarie Conservancy

“The black-eyed Susans were ablaze with color last fall,” observes Skip Wittler, professor of biology, about Ripon College’s largest outdoor classroom — the Ceresco Prairie Conservancy. “There’s a spiritual aspect to the prairie. It’s more than just plants and animals — it’s humans, too.”

Prairie Burn

Arguably one of Ripon’s most valued teaching environments, The Ceresco Prairie Conservancy is 130 acres of native prairie, oak savanna and wetland habitat in the making. The area, which serves as a place of study as well as recreation, is the subject of numerous student research projects concentrating on various plants and animals. It also is part of the Department of Natural Resources’ (DNR) Glacial Habitat Restoration Program, a partnership between the DNR and Ripon College, aimed at the restoration of the Conservancy’s prairie grasses and forbs. “We often name things for what we take away, such as naming a housing subdivision for the lost sand hill crane habitat it replaces,” says Ellen Barth ’80, DNR wildlife biologist. “I think it’s neat that the Ceresco Prairie Conservancy is named for something we are putting back into the landscape.”

Wittler, who serves as the director of the Conservancy project, works with the DNR in the management and restoration of the land, which has 3.5 miles of public trails and the Patricia Kegel Environmental Classroom, west of Ripon’s Storzer Physical Education Center. The beauty of the Conservancy, in Professor of Biology Bill Brooks’ mind, is the return of a sizable portion of a past prairie ecosystem to Wisconsin.

“Prairie and oak savanna ecosystems have fallen to .01 percent of their former acreage in Wisconsin, and from 6,000 acres to six acres in Fond du Lac County,” Brooks says. “The gain of more than 100 acres of restored prairie is significant and provides a major area for student/faculty research in prairie use and land restoration, and the study of prairie structure and dynamics.”

flowerWorking in sections of 10 or more acres at a time, Ripon’s biology department is accomplishing the prairie, oak savanna and wetland restoration through the seeding and maintenance of native plants, and the removal of non-native, invasive species.

“The non-native prairie species don’t provide the necessary cover for animals in the winter,” Wittler says. “Native warm-season grasses stay upright even under heavy snow, providing needed shelter.” In an area that supports wildlife such as deer, fox, pheasant, sand hill cranes and turkey, Brooks and Wittler believe that encouraging the growth of the Conservancy’s native plants will, in turn, encourage other animals to inhabit the area.

The Conservancy’s wetlands won’t see changes for a couple of years, according to Wittler, but he hopes eventually to eradicate non-native reed canary grass and introduce chord grass and other native grasses and sedges. “We’d like to increase the diversity of the wetlands in hopes of attracting various waterfowl,” says Wittler. Although Conservancy wetland restoration is on hold for now, Ripon has started to alter the makeup of the land in other areas.

White FlowersThe Conservancy’s prairies, depicted on the map in sections “A-F,” have received most of the nurturing to date, according to Wittler, who says section “A” is in its sixth season of growth, section “B” is in its fifth, “C/D” is in its fourth, and “E/F” in its third. “Typically, we harvest the seeds, and the DNR takes care of the planting and mowing,” he says. In 1998, the southern half of section “A” was intentionally burned with the help of the DNR, in part to boost native prairie plant growth and also to allow Ripon biology students the chance to study the affects of the burn. During the past two years, alumni and students have joined Wittler in collecting native prairie seeds at Goose Pond, south of Pardeeville, Wisconsin, and on the Conservancy prairie. Altogether, Wittler estimates the groups have gathered 20 different types of seeds weighing in at more than 400 pounds.

The oak savanna habitat, spanning 15 acres of the Conservancy, presents a different challenge, although the goal is the same as that of the prairie. Each fall, biology professors lead teams of volunteers in the removal of European buckthorn, an invasive plant whose main order of business, according to Brooks, is “strangling the oak trees.” In the past few years, Ripon alumni, students and friends have joined the professors in combating the buckthorn’s gnarled branches, first by sawing the plants down and then by applying short-lived herbicide to the stumps. “If you just cut the buckthorn down, it sprouts up again and is worse than before,” explains Wittler.

It’s a tiring process, added Brooks, who has worked with many volunteers in this effort. “It seems that Paul Kegel ’57,” who generously donated the Kegel Environmental Classroom in memory of his wife, Patricia Kegel ’56, “is always leading the pack to help,” Brooks says. “He’s gone out several times on his own and has organized volunteers to tackle the buckthorn. Ripon owes him a lot of thanks.”

Runners in the PrairieThrough the process of restoring the habitats, entailing physical exertion as well as knowledge, much is learned. Since hands-on learning is Ripon’s trademark, the Conservancy provides an ideal location for students to conduct animal and plant studies, or to simply sit, write or reflect.

“The conservancy provides a lot of students with senior research projects, just in keeping track of the animal and plant species year by year,” says Melissa Pischke ’98, who discovered through her research that the Conservancy balsam poplar trees were from one clone. “It’s an exciting area for research, especially for chemistry and biology majors.”

Work this fall by Wittler’s “Prairie Ecology” class included an exhaustive survey of plants on the prairie. “The use of the Conservancy in the classroom is phenomenal,” Wittlere says. “We take plant samples from the prairie and add them to our plant specimen collection for future use.”

Purple Prairie FlowersIn one of Brooks’ ecology labs, which focuses on buckthorn removal, students learn the reasons behind and the process of prairie restoration, according to Brooks. But it’s the “Biology 500″ senior thesis course that demands the hard-nosed research. Many students select some aspect of the Conservancy to be the topic of their research project. Their studies have added valuable insight into the mechanics of Ripon’s delicate ecosystems.

“The Conservancy provides an amazing classroom where Ripon students can participate in the restoration of an endangered ecosystem,” says Sara Tiner ’98, who conducted her senior research project on prairie forbs. “Ripon students are at an advantage because of the research and learning opportunities made possible by the prairie — for both the college and community, the prairie offers a chance to relax, bird watch or catch a glimpse of our wildlife.”

Conservancy Map

Ceresco Prairie Map



Ripon College encourages all students to embrace a Four-Year Career Development Plan. This plan is based on the premise that career planning is a development process that involves learning and decision-making over an extended period of time.

First Year

  • Incoming students are assigned a Faculty Mentor based on their interest area(s). Please see the FACULTY tab under your major area;
  • All Freshman are required to enroll in a First-Year Seminar, which is designed as a transition from high school to college learning, providing an interdisciplinary introduction to the liberal arts and the pursuit of in-depth study;
  • Freshman are encouraged to meet the career development staff early on and complete interest and skills inventories, and self-assessment tools; and,
  • Attend the pre-Fall Break “Major Fest” to explore the various major options and career tracks.

Third Year

  • Assume leadership positions in on-campus clubs and organizations;
  • Participate in mock interviews with the Career Development Office;
  • Attend the Wisconsin Foundation of Independent Colleges Job Fair in February and other relevant career fairs;
  • If relevant, begin to research potential graduate school programs and take the appropriate entrance exam(s);
  • Continue to meet regularly with your Faculty Mentor;
  • Continue to build a solid network and a list of work references, and build your resume;
  • Consider off-campus study: Semester and/or alternative Spring Breaks;
  • Continue to job shadow; and,
  • Gain further career experience associated with your education during the academic year and as part of a summer job or internship.

Second Year

  • Get involved with on-campus clubs and organizations, athletic teams and/or intramural sports;
  • Attend the pre-Fall Break “Major Fest” to explore the various major options and career tracks;
  • Declare a major;
  • Meet regularly with your Faculty Mentor or match your interests with a faculty member in your major department. Determine which professors have areas of expertise most similar to your interests. Talk to people in the academic department to find out about faculty research, scholarly, and creative interests;
  • Attend on-campus career workshops;
  • Work with the Career Development Office to create an approved resume;
  • Job shadow people involved in various careers and professions of interest; and,
  • Gain further career experience associated with your education during the academic year and as part of a summer job or internship.

Fourth Year

  • Complete a Senior Capstone/Thesis in your major area(s);
  • Continue to meet regularly with your Faculty Mentor;
  • Perfect your interviewing skills;
  • Expand your existing network of contacts;
  • Finalize your resume and prepare cover letter;
  • Build a credential file in the Career Development Office;
  • Interview with on-campus recruiters;
  • Set-up informational interviews with target companies;
  • If relevant, apply to graduate school programs, and if necessary, re-take entrance exams; and,
  • Practice career goal-setting.


Off-Campus Study

The biology department also offers lots of opportunities for off-campus field study. During an In Focus session, students study the flora of the Boundary Waters Canoe Area. Many study in other countries, including Wales, Costa Rica, Zimbabwe, Germany, Spain, Italy, and England. A program in Tanzania offers a chance to study human origins and African wildlife.

Ripon students often participate in the Semester in Environmental Science at the Marine Biology Laboratory in Woods Hole, Massachusetts. Others spend a semester on an open-ocean research cruise with the SEA Semester program in marine and environmental studies. You can learn more about these and other opportunities by clicking here.


What can I do with a Biology major?

An undergraduate degree in Biology can become a path to careers in research and development, healthcare, the biomedical sciences, organismal/ecological biology, biotechnology, bioinformatics, communication, education, the legal field, technical and pharmaceutical sales, and more.

Alumni of our program are actively pursuing doctoral degrees in Biostatistics, Ecological Chemistry and Botany, Marine Biology, Microbiology, Neuroscience, Physical Therapy and Translational Pharmacology at major research university’s across the country. Others are pursuing a variety of medical degrees in fields such as veterinary medicine, pharmacology, genetic counseling, and radiation oncology.

Recent graduates of our program work for…

  • 360 Physical Therapy
  • Affinity Health System
  • Aurora Medical Center
  • Biotronic
  • Biolife Plasma Services
  • Children’s Hospital of Wisconsin
  • Covance Laboratories
  • Dynacare Laboratories
  • Kaiser Permanente
  • Mayo Clinic
  • Prairie Restorations, Inc.
  • Apple Valley Veterinary Clinic
  • North Shore Associates

Job titles of recent graduates include…

  • Dentist
  • Chiropractor
  • Certified Nurse Midwife in Gyn/OB
  • Veterinarian
  • Hospital Supervisor
  • Physical Therapist
  • RN
  • Lab Worker
  • Phlebotomist Supervisor
  • Physician’s Assistant
  • Intraoperative Monitoring Technician
  • Pediatric ICU Nurse
  • Lab Supervisor
  • Resident

Recent Alumni of the Biology Department

Sam Sondalle ’11, a biology and chemistry double major, developed a special interest in the developmental biology of animals. He spent two of his undergraduate summers on research projects funded by an NSF-REU award. Sam also had the opportunity to travel to Spain — twice — as part of Ripon’s Maymester trips. A 2011 graduate of Ripon, he is co-author of an article published in Nature in May 2011. He is now studying in a combined M.D. and Ph.D. program at Yale University.

Biology major Amber Rico ’11 spent two academic years and one summer studying virus replication with professor Mark Kainz. The summer leading up to her senior year was spent conducting research at Texas A&M. Now, she is working on a Ph.D. at Colorado State University, with a special interest in the molecular basis of infectious disease.