In my eyes, the best thing that a teacher can do is to broaden the future possibilities of their students. As students, we don’t always understand how — or even that — our best teachers open up our minds to a wider and richer road ahead. And even as teachers, we can’t be at all sure how — or even if — we might be making a future trajectory possible. But great teachers do broaden horizons, often in completely unplanned ways.
I come to these conclusions about the nature of teaching as I remember a particular conversation with my undergraduate advisor, Dr. David Becker, a conversation that would in many ways make my current career possible. We must have been discussing the “graduate school option” in the context of my senior-year choices. I had taken all of the courses necessary to apply to medical schools, so that was a possibility. I had excelled in my biology courses, so applying to graduate school — likely to a department that featured a strong plant physiology program — was also in the mix. And then there was secondary school teaching, an idea that had been slowly growing during my final semesters of being an undergrad. Although it would have been easy for Dr. Becker to push me right into the same kind of education that had allowed him to sit there in front of me as my biology professor, that wasn’t what he did. He listened to what I was thinking and where I was leaning — which wasn’t towards graduate study in biology — and kept me open to the possibilities.
The adage that we lead through actions, not words, holds most true with Dr. Becker. It was powerful to hear him say that I didn’t necessarily have to just climb the direct ladder of success that seemed to be at arm’s length. But more powerful was his description of his own career trajectory: how he had started out teaching biology and chemistry at the high school level, and how fifteen years after graduating from Oberlin College he had earned his Ph.D. from UT Austin. And perhaps most influential was his example as a challenging but generous teacher. In 1992 I could have followed any of my possibilities, but empowered by his support — and life example — I decided to begin an eight-year stint as a middle school science teacher. Although I wouldn’t stick with secondary school teaching, my experiences in that early career have had a profound influence on who I am today. Fittingly, it was fifteen years after graduating from Pomona College that I earned my Ph.D. from Stony Brook University and began my career in higher education. Examples can exert a strong influence, leading us to places we might not have gone on our own.
As I think back to my time as Dr. Becker’s student, his Plant Physiology course stands out most strongly in my memory. The course was relatively niche, even for a small school like Pomona, and as I remember it there were maybe only four or five students enrolled. While I don’t remember exactly how many of us there were, I do remember that my classmates were intimidatingly talented (I am quite sure that all of them have managed to grace the pages of Pomona College Magazine far more times than I have!). Dr. Becker ran the course as a Socratic seminar, structuring lectures around the major topics of the week but expecting us — as the students — to provide most of the explanations of the material. I remember arriving to each class hyped to participate, doing my best to meet the many challenges that Dr. Becker provided to us during each class session, and taking copious notes on our discussions. I remember that despite being a subject that was heavy on content, Dr. Becker made plant physiology conceptual. That combination — of focusing on conceptual understanding and expecting students to actively explore that understanding — turned out to be the best environment for my learning, and has also served as the predominant model for my own teaching.
Dr. Becker was always demanding but very patient. He had a pretty elaborate lab where the algae Chlamydomonas was being grown in hydroponic chambers as part of his research program to unravel how heat shock proteins allow plants to survive in extreme environments. I spent at least one semester in that lab trying to get some basic experiments — or probably proto-experiments — to work. In another episode that should have served to signal me about my future potential, I turned out to be a pretty poor laboratory scientist (or, alternatively, it might have been that I was a bit distracted by skateboarding and the college radio station). My failure to make anything of value materialize in his lab did nothing to undermine Dr. Becker’s support of me or my future aspirations, and I always appreciated that he could see my failure as a signpost and not a dead end.
Dr. Becker is retiring after thirty years of serving the Pomona College community, and I wish him the best in retirement. I am very grateful for the profound role he played in my early education and for the reverberations of his influence that I still feel today. I have no doubt that his keen mind and enthusiasm for sharing his knowledge will lead him to some amazing projects in his retirement years!A Major Post, Biography, Biology (general), Experiments (General), Higher Education, Science as a career, Teaching