Professor Profile: Dr. Mark Mills

Photographer: Chase Merwin

Missouri Western students have probably seen the geese around campus, but have you spotted a turtle crossing the road? Dr. Mark Mills, a professor at Missouri Western in the biology department, has been a large part in discovering many turtles on campus.

Dr. Mills is originally from Omaha, Nebraska, where he was born and raised. He received his bachelor’s and master’s degree from the University of Nebraska. He then attended the University of Georgia where he studied brown water snakes while getting his doctorate degree. After completing his doctorate, he returned to the Midwest and taught at Missouri Valley College for 10 years before moving to Missouri Western.

“My master’s degree was on turtles. I’ve had lots of experience with turtles and I’m actually a herpetologist by training. My degree from Georgia is in ecology, but really what I study is amphibians and reptiles,” Dr. Mills said. “I remember when I applied here at Missouri Western, I was really interested in the fact our campus is huge! We have 700 plus acres here, there’s woods and a stream, and there are nine ponds. The herpetologist-turtle-biologist brain said ‘wow, nine ponds, there has got to be turtles.’”

Dr. Mills quickly discovered a way to incorporate the campus turtles into his class. Even 12 years later, students are still finding and marking turtles at Missouri Western.

“When I arrived in the fall of 2008, one of the classes that was assigned to me was Biology 105. So, as I’m planning labs for this class, I thought, we should sample some of these ponds. We caught and measured and marked our first turtles on campus. The next summer, I gathered a research team together and we more intensively sampled these ponds, and we really got serious about it, we’ve been doing it ever since. We’re still capturing some of those original turtles that we marked in 2008,” Dr. Mills said.

There are many interesting things they find out about the turtles. Sometimes students are able to capture them every year, while other turtles are rarely found. Although, Missouri Western students may even see a turtle crossing campus.

“Another thing that we found early on is that they don’t stay in their ponds. So, a turtle that you capture by the GISC (Griffon Indoor Sports Complex) can show up in the pond down by Scanlon or can show up in the trout pond,” Mills said. “You’re thinking ‘how did you get from there to there?’ You had to cross campus, roads and sidewalks, and dive cars, and yet they do it. They do it fairly often. There’s some of them that every time you catch this turtle, he’s in a different pond.”

The biology department has enjoyed using Gold Fridays to their advantage. Each professor has something they focus on, such as viruses or invertebrates or geography, so each professor and their students are collaborating on this project.

“Here in our department, we’re actually pretty excited about that. We thought this will give an opportunity, a set aside day, where we can do research projects with students. What we decided was to really grab a hold of that. We already had this project that Dr. Ectal and others had created called PORTAL, but that was typically in the summer. We thought, let’s apply that to these Fridays. We decided to focus and collaborate on studying campus ponds,” Mills said.

Konner Klarkin is a student in the biology department who has taken three classes with Dr. Mills. He enjoys the Gold Fridays that have been used this year.

“My favorite part about Gold Fridays PORTAL is learning about the multidisciplinary research involved with the pond biodiversity project. I’m learning various research techniques and have been given many opportunities to gain experience with real field work. The research projects are also helping me learn about future career paths and be able to think about things from a scientific perspective,” Klarkin said.

Sarah Powell has taken ecology with Dr. Mills and says that he is passionate about his work. She also enjoys participating in the Gold Fridays PORTAL.

“My favorite part of Gold Fridays is that it is hands-on learning. With Gold Fridays you aren’t just going to lecture and taking quizzes and exams. You are actually getting to apply what you learn, you get to learn new techniques, and you get to work one-on-one with a teacher,” Powell said.