I was born in Brooklyn, New York, just before my parents resettled in the suburbs of Long Island. For most of my childhood I lived in Huntington, New York, a wonderful town that supported much of the scant artistic and activist work happening on Long Island at the time. I graduated from Huntington High in 1989, a public school that provided me with a strong background in mathematics, the sciences, and writing.
After high school I attended Pomona College in Claremont, CA. Pomona is a classic liberal arts school, and I was privileged to take a great diversity of courses which helped frame my current broad view on scientific issues. I majored in biology but focused mostly on courses at the more organismal level. I took excellent courses in virology (taught by Anna Glasgow Karls), botany (taught by Sherwin Carlquist), plant physiology (taught by my advisor David Becker), and animal behavior (taught by Rachel Levin) but did not emerge with a very strong sense of what areas of biology were most interesting to me. Ironically I did not take courses offered in ecology or evolution, although I was very interested in the process of evolution. Some of the Pomona courses that were most influential on my world view were outside of my major. Two such courses stand out in my memory, one in theology (taught by Jerry Irish) and one in anthropology (taught by James McKenna). Not sure what I wanted to do after completing my undergraduate education, I also completed the courses required to be pre-med and took the MCAT.
Both of my parents were teachers (my mother taught science at Hunter College High School for many years before becoming chair of the science department at Huntington High) and throughout my high school and college years I always assumed that I would not follow their career path. But towards the end of my college years, I began to more seriously consider teaching. One experience that influenced this change of heart was the summer job I had supervising and teaching at a skateboarding camp: I found that I really enjoyed working with kids and teaching them new skills. Another experience acting as a teaching assistant for the introductory biology laboratory at Pomona further solidified my interest in teaching. I also began to take more seriously the idea that I ought to start to share some of the incredible educational privilege that I had enjoyed by working for others. I ended up applying to both medical school and the then-fledgling Teach for America program. I was admitted to several medical schools and went so far as taking the campus tour out at Stony Brook Hospital. I was also admitted to Teach for America to teach middle school science in New York City. Weighing the good that I felt I could do by following each of these possible pathways, I chose to enter the Teach for America program.
I began my teaching career at the Thomas C. Giordano Middle School 45 in the Belmont section of the Bronx. As is true for all new teachers, I had a very challenging year, but I was lucky to be filling in for a very talented and accomplished science teacher in a mini-school composed of highly-motivated bilingual students. A highlight of the program that I inherited was a regular weekly workshop given to our eighth-graders at the Bronx Zoo. When the teacher I replaced returned from sabbatical the less-than-enlightened principal proposed to move me to a position teaching music (because he had heard I played in bands) rather than displace existing science teachers, all of whom were veterans with certification in home economics. Sensing that good scientific teaching was not a priority at MS 45, I began looking for a new job and eventually found a position at the Eugenio de Hostos Intermediate School 318 in Williamsburg, Brooklyn.
IS 318 was an amazing school that allowed me to hone my teaching skills and develop my interest in ecological education. I joined a more experienced science teacher, Roy Arezzo, and we quickly became collaborators on a number of projects. When I came to IS 318, Roy was already running a space he called the “Ecology Center”, a pair of rooms filled with a menagerie of animals that allowed students to learn about the behavior of reptiles, fish, and mammals. A dynamo who cared deeply about making science educational experiential, Roy could get things done. I assisted as he worked to turn an abandoned, vacant lot across from the school into a community garden. Soon we had kids in after-school programs designing compost bins and tending to raised beds, and Roy oversaw a massive teacher and student volunteer program that composted nearly all of the cafeteria food waste. With Roy as an example and supporter I also strove to expand our offerings beyond the walls of the classroom, starting with a biannual ecology-themed overnight camping trip to Gateway National Recreation Area at Floyd Bennett Field. The trip allowed hard-working kids from all segments of the seventh and eighth grades to be nominated for this special experience, and we brought hundreds of students outside for a full day of ecology education. I also founded a unique shop class and afterschool program in bicycle repair and maintenance at IS 318, and Roy and I tied together our interests in ecology with support of sustainable transportation through a series of bike rides for students.
Although I did teach life science at IS 318, I spent many years teaching earth science, which allowed me to learn more about geology and meteorology. More importantly I learned how to bring inquiry-based learning into the classroom, a component of learning that I believe is critical to allowing students to understand scientific principles. Highly-involved in the many projects of IS 318, I did not think a lot about the sustainability of my own career or my long-term goals. One of the problems associated with the Teach for America program as I experienced it was that it did little to support or encourage the graduate work that leads to permanent teacher certification, and I rode out the full eight years of grace time before finally deciding to take a year off and work towards my master’s degree.
Looking for a good local program, I applied to the Master of Arts program in Stony Brook University’s Department of Ecology & Evolution and was accepted. One of the greatest things about Stony Brook’s two ecology and evolution graduate programs is that they require students to take a series of foundational courses; these proved invaluable to me. During my first semester I took both Principles of Ecology and Principles of Evolution, my first two formal courses in ecology and evolution. Delivered to both Ph.D. and Masters candidates, these courses solidified my interest in pursuing a terminal degree in ecology and evolution. After the first semester I applied to the doctoral program and was accepted.
I took awhile to decide what I wanted to focus on at Stony Brook, as I have always been interested in a variety of things. Eventually I settled on ecological theory, and took on Lev Ginzburg as my advisor. A free-thinker and theoretical rebel, Lev was a highly-attentive mentor who provided me with a broad background in theoretical ecology. To complement my theoretical work with Lev, I visited the laboratory of Leo S. Luckinbill — one of the pioneers of the Paramecium-Didinium microbial predator-prey system — and learned to culture these protozoans at Wayne State University. I also spent time in the lab of Dan Dykhuizen, where I completed several small projects working with Paramecium and Didinium and picked up some basic microbiological techniques from Dan’s graduate students. While at Stony Brook I benefited from the many high-quality seminars offered in the Department of Ecology and Evolution as well as the weekly colloquia and social events that acquainted me with the work of accomplished scientists.
Because I had eight years of teaching experience, at Stony Brook I quickly moved beyond the role of teaching assistant required of all graduate students. I co-taught and coordinated a non-majors ecology course alongside two faculty members and was tapped to teach a course in Applied Population Ecology when my advisor was on sabbatical. This experience made it clear to me what I wanted to do with my Ph.D.: I was motivated to teach, particularly at the undergraduate level.
One of the major assets of Stony Brook’s Department of Ecology and Evolution was the supportive atmosphere fostered by its graduate students. In reaction to the rather apolitical atmosphere in the department, I joined some fellow students in forming the aspirationally-named Science, Policy, and Global Progress (SPGP) study group. Although this experiment in looking at the overlap between science and social policy was relatively short-lived, the readings and discussions that happened in the SPGP sessions helped shape my views on how scientific knowledge ought to be applied in larger society. We also brought the Freewheel Collective, a community-run bicycle shop, to the Stony Brook campus.
My dissertation committee consisted of Lev Ginzburg, Jessica Gurevitch, Stephan B. Munch, and Leo Luckinbill. After presenting my dissertation and receiving my doctoral degree, I joined that Department of Mathematics and Science at Pratt Institute, where I presently teach courses and conduct research in the fields of ecology and evolution.
During my late teens and most of my twenties I was heavily involved in the 1990’s DIY hardcorepunk scene. I started off doing a radio show at Pomona College’s KSPC and then began doing benefit shows at Pitzer College. When I returned to New York I started a record label (Mountain), published a regular fanzine (Mountain Monthly), served as a regular columnist describing my experiences as a “punk teacher” (for HeartattaCk) and helped promote shows at the Huntington YMCA. Although I don’t consider them my greatest contribution to the punk community, I also played in a series of bands. My involvement in this scene informs my current work in a number of ways. First, the hardcorepunk community of that era realized a very strong ethic of mutual aid and cooperation, providing a strong contrast with the dominant individualistic ethic of the late 1980’s and early 1990’s, and my current interest in how cooperation evolves was in part inspired by my involvement in this community. Second, you might say that my interest in the stability of systems derives in part from punk’s critique of dominant social systems and the unique relationship between semi-autonomous punk communities and the larger political and social systems within which they operate. Of course maybe my interest in thinking about the properties of systems is internal, leading me first to being a punk kid and then later an academic with interest in ecological system stability. Whatever the direction of cause and effect may have been, the ethics and perspectives of my “punk rock upbringing” still influence my priorities and interests today.
To get my full academic biography, navigate over to my C.V. page. You can also read more about my educational background and my pedagogical and scientific skill-sets. If you are curious about my current life away from my career, I also describe some of my outside interests.
I contribute to wikipedia and the wikimedia commons as CXJJensen. I also maintain pages on LinkedIn and Academia.edu and have a profile on Google Scholar. I am not on Facebook or other social networking sites.