Melissa Aikens, Ph.D.

Melissa Aikens, Ph.D.

Assistant Professor

Educational Background:

Postdoctoral Research Associate, Biology Education, University of Georgia and University of Texas at Austin, 2014-2015

Ph.D., Biology, University of Virginia, 2013

M.F.S., Forest Science, Yale School of Forestry and Environmental Studies, 2004

B.A., Biology and Environmental Studies, Bowdoin College, 2000

Research Interests:

I conduct research in undergraduate biology education, which as a field aims to understand the teaching and learning of biology. Recent research in education and cognitive psychology has led to a better understanding of how students learn, and this has instigated national calls to reform the way biology is taught at the undergraduate level. My research focuses on understanding how self-beliefs and values related to motivation influence achievement and persistence in undergraduate biology students. I address this within two contexts: (1) quantitative biology education and (2) retention of students in the biology major.

  1. Incorporating quantitative skills into the biology curriculum

Though traditionally the least quantitative of the natural sciences, biology is becoming increasingly quantitative with the emergence of fields such as bioinformatics and systems biology. This necessitates the development of quantitative skills in undergraduate biology majors, including the ability to use statistics for inference and the ability to mathematically model biological concepts. However, how best to teach these skills to undergraduate biology majors is unclear. Drawing from educational theory, I ultimately seek to understand how students’ educational experiences in quantitative biology affect their self-efficacy and personal values towards quantitative biology tasks, their performance on quantitative biology tasks, and their choices to take additional quantitative biology courses.

     2.Persistence in the biology major

Although job opportunities within the US STEM workforce are growing, many undergraduates are leaving STEM majors. My research aims to understand how students’ values and the experiences they have during their first year, including both supports and barriers that students encounter, influence their self-efficacy and interest in biology. An underlying theme of this research is inclusivity; examining the experiences and values of different student groups may provide insight into why some groups continue to be underrepresented in the field of biology. Understanding what experiences positively and negatively impact biology majors’ self-efficacy and interest in biology can guide the creation of interventions aimed at retaining students in the major.

Additionally, as part of my postdoctoral work, I have examined mentoring in undergraduate research experiences. Undergraduate research experiences lead to many positive outcomes for students, and, therefore, national reports have recommended that all undergraduate biology majors participate in an authentic research experience. Mentoring is an important component of the undergraduate research experience, but the number of faculty mentors limits the number of undergraduates who can participate in a research experience. However, graduate students and postdocs often serve as mentors at research universities, increasing the number of undergraduates who can participate in research. My research, in collaboration with colleagues at UGA, seeks to understand how mentoring by a graduate student or postdoc and a faculty member contribute to undergraduate researcher outcomes.

There are opportunities for research in my lab for those interested in biology education, both at the undergraduate and graduate level. Please contact me for more information.

Selected Publications:


Aikens, M. L.,* Corwin, L. A.,* T. C. Andrews, B. A. Couch, S. L. Eddy, L. McDonnell, and G. Trujillo. A guide for graduate students interested in postdoctoral positions in biology education. CBE – Life Sciences Education. In press. *co-first authors

Aikens, M. L., S. Sadselia, K. Watkins, M. Evans, L. Eby, and E. Dolan. 2016. A social capital perspective on the mentoring of undergraduate life science researchers: An empirical study of undergraduate-postgraduate-faculty triads. CBE – Life Sciences Education 15: ar16.

Aikens, M. L. and E. L. Dolan. 2014. Teaching quantitative biology: Goals, assessments, and resources. Molecular Biology of the Cell 25: 3478-3481.


Aikens, M. L. and D. A. Roach.  2015. Tolerance to herbivory can buffer population growth rate from the negative effects of herbivores on fecundity. American Journal of Botany 102:1901-1911.

Aikens, M. L. and D. A. Roach. 2014. Population dynamics in central and edge populations of a narrowly endemic plant. Ecology 95: 1850-1860.

Aikens, M. L., D. Ellum, J. J. McKenna, M. J. Kelty, and M. S. Ashton. 2007. The effects of disturbance intensity on temporal and spatial patterns of herb colonization in a southern New England mixed-oak forest. Forest Ecology and Management 252:144-158. 


Melissa Aikens
G68 Spaulding