As the school year starts up once again, students across the country are getting to know their new teachers. Those teachers will help students learn and grow throughout the school year, and some will likely make impacts that last lifetimes and shape careers.
Many members of the Missouri Botanical Garden’s research staff were inspired by teachers to pursue careers in science. In the spirit of the back to school season, a few of them share stories of how teachers put them on the path to the Garden’s research department.
Research Associate Ehoarn Bidault, who is French, on his experience as an exchange student at Millersville University:
My major was already biology, but I did not quite know which branch I would pursue. During several courses, I could well see that I was not made for zoology, and that I overall preferred the company of plants. At some point, we had a lecture by Dr. David Dobbins, who had been a member of the biology faculty for about 30 years. The lecture he gave on this day was quite unusual. It had no structure, no overall message, no introduction, development, or conclusion. It was more a gathering of small stories about him wandering through the rainforests of South America. In an overall very dense and hard to follow program of science courses, at least for a young, lost French man, Dr. Dobbins’ lecture was a magnificent breath of air.
I will never forget the vision of this thin, small man, with a perfect haircut, the large hands of botanist, the classic mustache and the everlasting smile, telling small stories of the life and work in rainforest, with the pristine excitement about it as if he was still discovering it himself. The passion he put in his story was a delight, and he managed to change our points of view about rainforests, which I was convinced were a wet, hot, and muddy purgatory where you either could die instantly from a snake bite, or slowly and painfully from malaria of some kind. Dr. Dobbins’ message was, “Yes, it is that wet, hot, and muddy purgatory that you think of, but it’s also a magical place, where one can feel things he or she cannot feel anywhere else on the planet.” With his small stories and the preserved passion of a young man, Dr. Dobbins told us, “Why not you?”
Ten years later, I am a tropical botanist working in central African forests, and I now understand the stories he was telling us.
Carmen Ulloa, Curator, Science & Conservation, on a professor who set her on the path toward botany:
Inspired by Jacques Cousteau’s explorations on the Calypso, I wanted to be a marine biologist. However, growing up 9,000 feet above sea level in Ecuador’s capital city Quito, I settled for biology at the Catholic university. Birds were my first love, and I spent many weekends in the field, bird watching. I even learned how to prepare skins. A trip to the Galápagos Islands gave me the opportunity to be in Darwin and Cousteau’s footsteps assisting in a census of penguins and flightless cormorants. It was one of the best field adventures I have ever had! When the time came to choose a subject for my biology thesis and I was approached by my teacher, Danish botanist Henrik Balslev, then in residence in Ecuador. He convinced me that with my good grades in botany, I should consider an opportunity that arose to conduct a thesis project in the Chocó forest in northwest Ecuador.
Six female students ventured into this extremely wet forest. I targeted the gingers and allies. Upon completion, I did not hesitate to get involved in a new floristic project in the Andes mountains. By that time, Balslev had returned to his native country, but not before motivating me to apply to a graduate program abroad.
He became my advisor at Aarhus University, where I went for my PhD. He also played a key role towards an opportunity upon graduation to move to St. Louis. I have made my career in botany at the Garden for the past 25 years.
Alan Graham, Curator of Paleobotany & Palynology, Center for Conservation and Sustainable Development Consultant, on the inspiration he found early in his education:
Mrs. Muller, at Dow Junior High School, gave a lecture on fossils, emphasizing that all living organisms have a past, and what they are today and what they will become in the future is a consequence of what happens to them over thousands of years.It was the first time I ever thought about how things living today have geological pasts that go back thousands of years. That’s a fascinating concept.
My admiration for her and other teachers of science has grown over the years. I have come to realize how, at that time and place, teachers had to be aware about how they presented topics related to evolution. Even within these constraints, teachers like Mrs. Muller presented the material on the geologic history of organisms and communities of organisms in a way that retained the accuracy and fascination inherent in the subject. She did this by referring to the process as “change over time” rather than “evolution,” and left it to us to contemplate whether it applied to humans.
These patient efforts by intelligent and clever teachers and researchers are slowly paying off and the need for revising misconceptions is becoming recognized. “A certain way of understanding human life and activity has gone awry to the serious detriment of the world around us” (Pope Francis, on Care of Our Common Home).
Among others, thank you to the Mrs. Mullers of the world.
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