Rhodes College
Mellon Innovation Fellowship Program

Evolution, Apps, and Other Matters of Biological Importance

Rachel Jabaily
Assistant Professor of Biology
2015-2016 Fellow

In relationship with Dr. Boyle’s Biology and Animal behavior courses, Dr. Jabaily’s project codified evolutionary knowledge in the form of an app to provide in depth information about the animals in the Memphis Zoo.

The Memphis Zoo is one of the city’s finest treasures and one of the world’s top zoos. It is also one of the primary venues in which locals and visitors learn about the broader natural world. Curiosity is sparked, and the why questions that follow (from the visitor, or their children) are often, at the core, evolutionary. Why is the giraffe’s neck so long? Why are red and giant pandas both called pandas, when they look so different?  The visitor seeks answers from signage in the immediate area and, if not satisfied with the minimal or disparate facts often presented, may pursue a more enriched and structured scientific narrative through their smartphones.

Professor Jabaily’s Evolution course (Biology 200) utilizes the Memphis Zoo and emphasizes communication about evolution to diverse audiences. In the Build a Tree lab module, students observe zoo mammals and form hypotheses of relationships as evolutionary ‘trees’ to test with molecular data. In the Zoo Makeover module, student groups evaluate the current signage in select zoo exhibits and then develop their own evolutionarily enriched signage. The students are consistently frustrated with the minimal discussion of evolution in current zoo signage, and general lack of content or cohesion. They repeatedly come to the conclusion that utilizing evolutionary ‘trees’ to organize information and lead to meaningful comparison of animals would be better.

Professor Jabaily’s students suggested on course evaluations that her lab projects, while enjoyable, could be more authentic by directly engaging the zoo community. Therefore she proposed to have her Evolution class develop a new smartphone app for zoo visitors, with additional content provided by Dr. Boyle’s Animal Behavior and research students. Evolution and Behavior are closely allied biological disciplines and the content should be readily complementary. Both groups of students collaboratively decided on the design of the app, and then Professor Jabaily’s class decided on the central ideas of evolution that they would want a zoo patron to learn through a walking tour of the zoo lead by the app. Individual students were responsible for researching and developing content on animals, focusing on memorable natural history narratives and current evolutionary research. For example, at the hippo exhibit a visitor could learn about the anatomical and molecular evidence supporting hippos as the closest relatives to whales. The visitor could then continue within the app to learn about the current hippo pair’s behavior through work by Dr. Boyle’s students. The students assessed the effectiveness of their pedagogy by leading tour groups through the zoo using their app. The Mellon student fellows helped troubleshoot app designing freeware (like MIT’s AppInventor), they uploaded content, and they assessed the app at the zoo.

This project replaced most activities in the two current lab modules, and it was a focal point for lecture and lab, adding continuity and purpose.  At the initiation of the project, the classes met with Dr. Andy Kouba, Zoo Director of Conservation and Research, who expressed strong support for this project and the corresponding synthesis. Students were familiarized with some of the operations of a complex organization while learning how to appropriately communicate with community partners. The relationships forged and skills learned may lead to future opportunities.

Being part of the Mellon Fellowship community has broadened Professor Jabaily’s perspective about engaged scholarship, it has helped to connect her to campus and community resources, and it has made her a better liberal arts scholar, teacher, and role model for her students. She has benefited from being part of a diverse, dynamic, and engaged group of teacher/scholars committed to innovative curriculum and community engagement. Engaging the wider community is an important component of her research and teaching.

Also, a focus on the broader impacts of scientific research is important to Professor Jabaily and is of paramount importance to granting agencies like the National Science Foundation. This project helped her broaden the audience for her field of evolutionary ‘tree’ research while also making her more competitive for future grants. The proposed project will employ the natural curiosities of students and visitors, and help make the zoo one of the main venues where evolution, the bedrock of modern biology, is taught and public misconceptions quelled.


Rachel Jabaily
Assistant Professor of Biology

Dr. Jabaily studies the evolutionary relationships between plants by generated molecular sequences and building phylogenetic trees.