Planting new roots at ACC

Sally Kittrell is the newest biology instructor at Allen Community College. She's passionate about plants, but will be teaching students about a variety of scientific studies.



August 27, 2021 - 2:26 PM

Sally Kittrell removes an organ from an anatomical model in the biology lab at ACC. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

Trying to make sense of life? Look no further than Sally Kittrell.

That’s because the 36-year-old Independence native is the newest biology instructor at Allen Community College, bringing along a background in everything from physiology to prairie plants.

She’s certainly not one to brag, though, preferring to keep things simple. 

“I’m rural by choice,” Kittrell said. “I don’t need much.”

For instance, she and her husband Matt have recently been tending to the peppers they grew in the garden, and she’s in the process of converting her flowerbeds to native perennials.

Sons Lawson, 6, and Archer, 3, sometimes get in on the action as well, though even if only as spectators.

Biology instructor Sally Kittrell enjoys a break along with her skeletal friend.Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register

KITTRELL’S educational journey was a lengthy one, first taking her to Culver-Stockon college in Missouri, then Pittsburg State.

Afterwards, she earned a Master’s from K-State, writing a thesis on prairie plant ecology, focusing specifically on how they tolerate drought stress.

“[I was] looking at the physiology of the plants and how they respond when we can actually measure changes in photosynthesis,” she said, “and in the water content of the leaves.”

Kittrell also spent significant time as a graduate researcher at Oklahoma State University, where she delved into the relationship between wetland plants and soil fungi.

“My background is definitely more plant ecology, interactions between various organisms within those ecosystems,” she explained. “Looking at how different species affect one another and how that ecosystem functions.”

To this day, Kittrell says she still notices invasive plants growing along the roadside, and finds herself tracking their spread across time.

“I’m always on the lookout,” she said. “That wasn’t there last year!”

One invasive variety she pointed out in this area specifically is Teasel, which looks like thistle.

“It makes me nervous,” Kittrell noted, “… [since] invasive species often crowd out more native/desirable plants.”

“They are also able to grow out of control because the organisms that live here don’t have those natural defenses to new invasive species.”

Sally Kittrell. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
Sally Kittrell. Photo by Trevor Hoag / Iola Register
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AFTER returning to Kansas 6 years ago, Kittrell taught at Neosho Community College and Independence High School, and in the process gained a new appreciation for anatomy and physiology.

That’s certainly a positive thing, as her primary role at ACC is teaching courses in that vein.

Kittrell said her favorite moment as an instructor is when students have an “ah-ha moment,” “when you can see [them] really grasping what you’re trying to teach them.”

Granted, it’s not always easy, since the curriculum often involves dissecting something like cats or cow eyes.

“You have to put your science glasses on … crossing that line from common, everyday experience,” she said. “Some students have a hard time with that.”

And of course, “every once in a while, you’ll have a mishap and people get splashed with something unsavory while cutting an organ open.”

“It can be a little too exciting sometimes,” Kittrell laughed.

ANOTHER tough topic that Kittrell teaches involve evolution and natural selection, which can not only academically challenge students but rattle their worldview.

Nonetheless, Kittrell patiently walks students through the concepts, helping them to understand that they are absolutely central to scientific thinking.

“Evolution is the backbone of science,” she said. “It’s the way we understand how organisms work. We have DNA!”

“Organisms are influenced by the environments they live in,” Kittrell continued. “This causes some organisms to survive and some to die, because of their traits, and organisms’ DNA changes over time. That’s it. That’s the foundation.”

Along these lines, she also employed an illustrative analogy, pointing out how “[people] are very willing to trust their doctor to do gene therapy, say if they have leukemia, … but the foundation of that science is seeing genes and how they evolve over time.”

Yet although topics of this kind can be hard for students and others, Kittrell said “it does happen that learning about the details and the true evidence behind it can start to change minds.”

SPEAKING of changing minds, as a scientist, Kittrell laments the political storm surrounding COVID-19 and the vast amount of misinformation surrounding it.

And it’s not merely a theoretical question, she said, since as a parent, for example, “how the school decides to handle it really colors where you want your child to go.”

“We ended up going to a private school instead of a public one because of COVID,” she said.

“A lot of the research that’s being done is new,” Kittrell observed, “but we are following the scientific method, asking questions, following that up with research as best we can.”

“We’re at the point now, … that we DO have data, and we have the lived experience of people all across the country too,” she said.

“We DO know things like: masks work. We DO know that the vaccines are working. And so it’s frustrating that there’s any kind of debate,” she said.