Missouri State University

Dr. Christopher Barnhart

  • Professor
  • Bachelor's in zoology, Iowa State University
  • Master's in biology, University of Kansas
  • Doctorate in biology, University of California-Los Angeles

Biology professor happy to share his passion for his field

If it lives in a river in the Ozarks, Dr. Christopher Barnhart has probably come across it. 

Dr. Barnhart has taught biology classes at MSU since 1991, and he does research on native freshwater mussels and other invertebrate animals. “My work is also my hobby,” he says. “I like to go into streams and take a look.” Students benefit from his pastime — they may do fieldwork with him at the river, or laboratory experiments on campus. “At Missouri State,” he says, “we have opportunities for students to do research, and the professors care enough about you to want to get you involved.”

You are being profiled because students say you’re a great teacher. What do you think makes a teacher great?

Number-one is being enthusiastic. I think students respond to a teacher’s level of motivation — if a teacher clearly wants to be there, then the students will too. I love biology and I love the things I study; it’s endlessly fascinating to me.

Why is biology a great major for college students?

Biology is how we protect our environment, cure disease and understand where we came from — to me, it’s the most important human endeavor and certainly the most intellectually stimulating one. It includes natural history, agriculture, medicine, biotechnology and many other areas — I mean, how can you not want to study biology?! Plus, there are so many aesthetic rewards. There are so many beautiful things in biology — like butterflies, moths and even clams.

Tell us about your research with freshwater mussels.

Native mussels are important players in river ecosystems. But a lot of freshwater mussel species are in danger of extinction, and we look at the reasons they are endangered, such as water pollution and interactions with other animals. We grow mussels for research and to restore their populations. When they are larvae, they are parasitic — which means they must be attached to certain kinds of fish to survive. We put them on the fish, then after a few weeks they drop off and require TLC in the campus lab for a period of three to six months. When they are about the size of an apple seed, we take them to our lakeside facility at the Kansas City Zoo. There, they grow more quickly and require less care. A lot of those mussels will eventually be released into wild water, and some will come back to our lab for research.

Do undergraduate students get to assist with biology research?

It’s necessary to include students in research. I would never get to do the types of projects I want to do without helping hands. If I notice a promising undergraduate in class — if they are doing well academically and they express interest — I will tell him or her about what we do in our labs. A select few will get involved in the research alongside the graduate students.

Why should a student interested in biology choose Missouri State?

We have a strong undergraduate program. We are both a teaching institution and a research institution — that means our professors don’t just teach or just do research; they do both. We have faculty who are internationally recognized in a variety of fields, and many of them work closely with students seeking bachelor’s and master’s degrees. Also, our program is big enough that we will have a specialty area that appeals to you, but not so huge you get lost — most students get to know their biology professors pretty well.  

What other advantages does Missouri State offer that other schools do not?

We are in a great location — the Ozarks region is a great place to live and to study biology. We have some outstanding facilities, including the Jordan Valley Innovation Center. It offers tremendous opportunities for undergraduates to get involved with cutting-edge research in cell biology and maybe even earn a paid position working with professional biologists. That’s rare — students don’t get those opportunities everywhere. 

How are MSU students prepared for the real world?

The real world starts here! I mentioned JVIC, which is a research center where students might collaborate with potential employers. We also have close working ties with conservation and resource-management agencies. We have a U.S. National Park Service research unit and a U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service biologist stationed on campus. These professionals may involve students with their projects, and provide internships on campus. Because many biology students end up working for state or federal agencies, these professionals show students what the work is really like and may serve as career role models.