Faculty Profiles

Helen Hess

Professor of Invertebrate Zoology and Biomechanics

Helen Hess

Professor of Invertebrate Zoology and Biomechanics

Helen HessWhere did you go to school?

B.S. University of California Los Angeles, 1985

Ph.D. Zoology, University of Washington, 1991.

What do you teach?

I teach a variety of biology courses at COA, most of which involve a significant field or lab component. My formal training as an invertebrate zoologist has lead me to develop courses that take me and my students wherever invertebrates are found, including local rivers, Maine's rocky intertidal shores, and Caribbean coral reefs. I also teach a course in biomechanics, where students explore how the laws of physics have played a role in the evolution of living organisms.

Why do you teach at COA?

I am gratified by the enthusiasm I see among COA students who take my classes. They share my excitement about the subject matter, whether it's learning the secrets of how barnacles mate or the physics and anatomy behind grasshopper jumping.

How long have you been part of the COA community? What has changed?

I've been a professor at the college since 1994. The COA faculty is a small yet diverse group with differing experiences, perspectives, and areas of expertise. One thing that unites us is our commitment to students and the joy we derive in our role as teachers. That commitment has been evident since I first arrived here at COA.

Which project thrills you most to assign and witness?

Some of the things I teach about have instant appeal, and all I really need to do is show my students a particular critter and get out of the way as they move in for a closer view amid the chorus of oohs and ahhhs. Surprisingly, sea cucumbers often have this effect. Other things take sustained effort and attention from us all in order to really come to an appreciation of the phenomenon. Understanding why the legs of elephants are so thick compared to the rest of their bodies, while smaller animals have disproportionately slimmer limbs, requires an understanding of specific mathematical equations, engineering principles of strength, and evolutionary processes. But the journey to reach that understanding is worthwhile, and COA students embrace the journey with enthusiasm and courage.

What do you find inspiring and important about the student body at COA?

Our students are extraordinary in their ability to take lessons learned in one context and apply those things: the skills, experience and understanding, much more broadly. Understanding the evolution of mating systems in hermaphroditic fish is fascinating to know but it may be information that is directly relevant in only a narrow range of circumstances. The critical thinking, analytical skills, and pleasure in working hard to understand a complex phenomenon are habits of mind that are broadly transferable, and our students understand that.

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