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The prairie on fire during the annual Green Oaks Prairie Burn.

Nicholas Gidmark

At Knox Since: 2016

Associate Professor of Biology

Gidmark employs models of physics and engineering to examine why anatomy is shaped the way it is.

Nicholas Gidmark, assistant professor of biology

Gidmark received his bachelor of science degree in biology from the University of Minnesota in 2006 and his Ph.D. In ecology and evolutionary biology from Brown University in 2012. His teaching interests include comparative vertebrate anatomy, animal physiology, and fish biology.

How did you first get interested in your academic field?

I’ve been digging in dirt, catching frogs, and looking at water beetles under microscopes since I was five. I’ve been fascinated by structure and the diversity of shapes in nature, but never really thought I could turn that into a career. I joined a natural resources department in college with the goal of being outside, in nature, as much as humanly possible. My interest in fishes led me to join a research lab that studied evolutionary relationships of fishes using DNA sequencing techniques. I eventually used those relationships to look at how the shapes of feeding structures (jaws, teeth, etc.) have evolved in fishes. During my Ph.D. at Brown University, I went on to more deeply examine how different jaw shapes function, employing models of physics and engineering to examine why anatomy is shaped the way it is, a field typically called “biomechanics.” Most of my research time is spent studying the design and function of fish heads using comparative anatomy, physiology, and biomechanics.

Why did you choose to teach at a liberal arts college?

I think the seed was planted when I was an undergraduate at the University of Minnesota, where I was in a small department and got involved in a research lab early in my college career. On a campus of tens of thousands, I was lucky enough to be in a research lab of a half-dozen students where my mentor spent a great deal of time collaborating with me on research, despite his faculty duties. I’ve collaborated with undergraduates ever since, though both graduate school and postdoctoral research fellowships, and have been amazed by the energy and enthusiasm of my students. I suppose I really got hooked during my years at an island-based marine lab (Friday Harbor Laboratories) in the Pacific Northwest where (in addition to doing research) I had the pleasure of teaching fish biology to eight highly motivated students one year and nine the next. I think that a residential liberal arts college setting lets me get into teaching subject matter and research experiments in a synergistic way where my energy and that of my students can feed off of one another; I can actually get to know my students and share my academic passions with them. One just can’t get that experience anywhere else.

Describe one of your favorite teaching moments.

Hmm. This is a tough one. I’m not sure one moment would do it justice. This fall was a pretty powerful quarter for me. I taught Comparative Vertebrate Anatomy, a deeply humbling, challenging, enthralling subject that one can only skim in 10 weeks. Fish, sharks, frogs, dogs, snakes, and birds are just plain fascinating, and studying them comparatively gives real insight into bits of nature that we see every day. I fed off of the interest my students had, and many of them either rekindled an interest in diversity and anatomy while others were jazzed about the material when they saw it for the first time. I had students who struggled initially and worked hard to improve their proficiency—in one case, a student went up by two letter grades between the midterm and the final! This course was an incredible challenge for me as a first-time faculty member, and my students made it truly rewarding. If 10 weeks can be a moment (it is the blink of an eye on an evolutionary timescale), this fall was definitely one of my favorite teaching moments.

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Printed on Monday, July 22, 2024