Sex, biology and the delight of discovery

Sehoya Cotner — recipient of a 2014 Morse Alumni Award — encourages a passion for scientific study.

Sehoya Cotner likes to talk about sex. In fact, she talks about sex a lot. It’s all in a day’s work, after all. “The class I teach on the Evolution and Biology of Sex is a way to make biology socially and personally relevant for students, and that’s a huge goal in my teaching,” says Cotner, a teaching professor with Biology Teaching and Learning. “I’m just glad that I was able to develop the theme around a topic that, let’s face it, is one of the greatest universal interests, especially among young people.”

In recognition of her engaging and effective teaching methods, Cotner was recently awarded the Morse-Alumni Undergraduate Teaching Award. The University of Minnesota honors a handful of top teachers each year for their outstanding contributions to undergraduate education with the award.

“I believe that we’re all born scientists,” Cotner says. “My goals as a teacher are simple -- reinstill a love of the unknown, promote confidence in addressing ambiguity and foster delight in discovery.” Cotner, who has been a member of the faculty since 2002, has been teaching the sex class for seven years. She also teaches classes in zoology, and study-abroad classes in Coral Reef Ecology and the biology of the Galapagos. She was one of the driving forces for the establishment of a marine biology minor at the University, and now serves as the director.

No one skips these labs

As one of the most popular courses on campus, even the labs associated with Evolution and Biology of Sex have become legendary. “Our first lab of the semester is focused on condoms, including testing the tensile strength and permeability of various kinds, and seeing what happens if they’re left out it the sun or held past their expiration date. It’s a way to introduce the scientific process, hypothesis development, experiment design and data testing, all by using a material with which students have a highly developed interest.” To study mate choice and sexual orientation, Cotner designed a lab using bean beetles. “They’re each about the size of one Nerd candy, and they’re just adorable,” she says.

The most popular lab each semester is always the one on sperm competition. It involves using what Cotner clinically describes as “artificial copulatory organ models.” As a side note, she’s amazed at how many of these life-size models are available for purchase on the Internet. “And you should see what else Amazon suggests you might be interested in buying, once you’ve bought them,” she adds dryly. During the lab students make their own replica of semen and conduct experiments. “There are always several hypotheses on thrusting,” she muses, “because, you know, not all species thrust.”

Birth of a teacher

“I went to graduate school with every intention of becoming a research scientist,” she says. “But, as a teaching assistant, I discovered that I had a genuine love of teaching. Most of the students I was working with were not biology majors. Anyone can convey the content of the facts that need to be learned, but I tried to help them understand the context and see the relevance and importance of biology. I realized then that teaching is a way to make a tangible difference to society, and I’ve pretty much been a teacher ever since.

Evolution and Biology of Sex is often the last class a student needs to take before graduation because they’ve been putting off getting that science credit for four years,” she says. “It’s fun to hear so many of them say, ‘I’m not a science person, and I had no idea I would love biology.’ They send me articles about sex years later, with nice notes saying, ‘This made me think of you.’”

A medal and a dragon

The award comes with tangible recognition, Cotner reports. “First, I’ll get a medal, which I’m allowed to wear with my robes at graduation,” she says. “I run marathons, and I just love it when I win a medal, so that’s very motivating to me, and I’m excited about it.”

In addition, she will receive a cash award. While her plans to use the funds are still in the early stages, she confesses to an initial desire for a family trip, and is already doing some preliminary research on places like Komodo, Rinca, Flores, Gili Motang and Padar, the Indonesian islands inhabited by Komodo dragons. “I’d love to take my two kids and my husband, Jim [a professor in CBS’ Department of Ecology, Evolution and Behavior], to see the dragons in their native habitat,” she says.

“It never gets old”

“Teaching never gets old,” Cotner concludes. “I’m always learning new things from students, from life, and from reading. Teaching is the perfect job for people who want to keep learning, which, I’m happy to say, is most of the people I know.”

– Julie Kendrick