During one of my lab classes this week a student asked me why I had left research for teaching at a Community College. I didn’t do a great job answering her right then as we were outside measuring photosynthesis and sweating in the Great Southeastern Sauna, but I gently explained the following points about academic research:
(1) Unless you get a string of first author papers in high impact journals or are mentored by a nobel laureate, your chances of landing a well paid position are low (well paid in my case meaning enough to support a family of 4).
(2) There is a myth that researchers show up to work any given day because they know that THIS will be the day that they solve X. X being cancer, autism, type II diabetes, HIV/AIDS etc. I think a significant number of people think that this is a large motivation behind why researchers do what they do. In my experience, this is not generally true; although every researcher I knew expressed an interest in solving X, they mostly showed up to work every day because they liked working on a puzzle, a beautiful & challenging puzzle. Every paper I was on (you can count them with one hand in your pocket) mentioned our specific X, but every day I showed up because viruses are just cool.
(3) It is generally a lonely pursuit with a lot of late nights that results (if you are successful) in a PDF file in a database and a warm feeling in your tummy that you have contributed incrementally to our understanding of the world.
I alluded to the fact that I am not really smart enough to be a good researcher, that I had started teaching on the side and loved it from that first night. But I should have added something to my list of points about academic research:
(4) While you have the opportunity to use extremely high tech, really cool technology (my favorite was a kind of microscope that scans your sample with different color lasers then shows you a 3D picture of the cell with different structures in different colors), the technology constrained you somewhat. You couldn’t just take a bug that you found on the way to work, crush it open and look at it’s cells in the microscope. I worked for about 2 years in a HIV lab that required me to wear a full-body Tyvek suit, with hood, booties, surgical mask, protective goggles & 2 pair of gloves regardless of whether the virus was on the bench or in the freezer. Super cool, sort of kind of a little Hot Zone-ish.
But there is no way I could have brought in an insect to try some home brew experiments to look for the viruses that I knew were there. I am not complaining, it’s a good thing that we stick to one research topic, but the lab was always far too removed from the outside world if you take my meaning (for me at least, thank goodness there are people with more determination than I have). This is where working in a Community College science department wins out over working at a nearly-famous research institute.
I have been teaching and will teach next semester, an introductory biology course for non-majors that focuses on plants, animals, fungi…. whole organisms that you can actually see. The students that come into this class are generally not there because they have a burning interest in the subject. They are generally there because they need to fulfill a general education requirement. They are there because someone in advising told them to be there. For many it’s the last science course they will ever take. For many it’s the first biology course since the NINTH GRADE. Some come with a PhD level ability to organize and think about information, some couldn’t put together a proper English sentence; many are completely unaware of how smart they really are. Most are distracted by jobs, massive student loans, dying grandmothers and cars that average a flat tire every other day. I am kept very busy trying to keep this class engaging.
My latest approach was born out of conversations with my department chair and our lab manager. I was bouncing ideas off them about the possibility of requiring these students to make a bug collection for a part of their grade. I was all fired up about it. Generally that means I am half-cocked, and they are the ones that help me appreciate some of the devilish details. Such as: how will the students kill the bugs? What will you do when it is clear that they are bringing in the detritus from their windshields? What happens when a student gets bitten while doing a required project? Then my department chair suggests “why not put up some fly strips by the pond” [sidebar: forests with ponds? BEST teaching tool ever.]. In my defense, I HAD thought of the “What if a student gets bit” question and was vaguely working on a solution.
The flystrip was hanging in a young red maple next to the pond that evening. I took pictures. I made an entry in my notebook. I was excited about catching some of the amazingly colored dragonflies we see out there. My lab manger told me he would kill me if I caught a hummingbird (apparently they are protected).
Three days later (today) I went out to check it. No dragonflies. Nothing larger than 1/8 of an inch. Dissapointment. I could see some very small somethings. A little spider. Maybe a moth type thing and what might be a very small wasp. Cool, but nothing that would help with the flat tire pandemic. On the positive side, there weren’t any humming birds. But I persisted. In science you have to finish even failed experiments because you don’t know what you might have found, but as I held the flystrip at arm’s length back into the building, I was already re-considering a line for my syllabus: “Students who are bitten by poisonous or otherwise noxious insects or spiders will receive an automatic F in the course”. I cut the strip into smaller strips, put them in clear plastic bags (another devilish detail. Not easy, as you might expect) and looked at them under a stereomicroscope. O. M. G.
New problem: there is no way that the average non-majors student will be careful enough to get a true count of all these organisms. But if we can accurately count something a couple times a semester this there are some publishable things in here.
New problem: There are about 80 million different buggers that look vaguely mosquito-ish. Note to self: read up on mosquitoe diversity.
New problem: Do we have enough books for the students to identify all of these?
New problem: Fly strip glue is some sort of futuristic adhesive that laughs at soap. How am I going to get it off this focus knob without the lab manager knowing?
New problem: Where can I find that NPR piece about the zillions of bugs that are floating in the air…. Clearly only some of these have wings.
Day one: visit forest make observations, write some hypotheses about where you would expect more bugs to be caught & hang strips. Day two: visit forest to test hypotheses by hanging strips. Day whatever: recover strips, count bugs. Day whatever +1: Write a hypothesis about where you might catch more mosquitoes/spiders/hummingbirds Day whatever +2: Go outside and hang strips to test hypotheses…..
Oh my, I am drinking teacher Tiger Blood here. This is why I teach at a Community College.