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Who Were Your Scientific Influences?

January 1, 2015
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I am visiting my family over the holiday and was talking to my sister a few night’s ago and we were recalling the professors we had back as Stephen f. Austin State University in the mid-1980s. As we were talking, I was reminded that there are a number of professors and others who were very influential on my own professional development and I thought it would be nice to recognize them as I enter the new year.

SFASU was a great school at which to get an education. It was big enough to allow you the anonymity of a large campus and to attract some pretty good professors but small enough to allow you to stand out and for professors to identify your nascent talent. So, here are a list of people you have probably never heard of who were very important to my personal and professional development.

Byron VanDover, Ph.D. – I had Dr. VanDover my first semester. Botany. He knew everyone’s name the first day of class and this was way before we had online directories of students so we could make a photo roster. He was a lecturer, a method of instruction that (according to educational specialists) appealed to my generation. But his lectures were so clear and organized that it was difficult not to learn. And he, as many of my professors were, had a broad as well as deep knowledge of what they taught and studied. He taught me what it was to be clear and understandable in a lecture.

Walter V. “Mike” Robertson, Ph.D. – I never knew how he got dubbed Mike. He identified me in my third semester comparative anatomy course as having teaching potential. He saw me helping students at my own lab table as well as others around the lab and saw that I was in the lab after hours studying all the specimens as I knew the practical would be based on the specimens in the lab and I knew that anatomy varied among individuals. If I could identify the anatomy on all the specimens in the lab, there was no question on the practical I could not answer. He asked me to be an undergraduate teaching assistant and after that, I started teaching and never looked back.

Mike and Dr. Wayne Slagle (my embryology professor, also a very good teacher) had a country/bluegrass ensemble that got together irregularly. On some of these occasions, he would invite undergraduates and graduate students over to eat barbecue and listen to his band play. He was a tough professor in a tough subject but could draw almost any structure in vertebrate anatomy and was super clear when lecturing. And he had a great sense of humor and was never afraid to show his humorous side or that there were things out there that he did not know. He also showed me what life work balance was all about, something I am still struggling to achieve for myself.

Charles Dean Fisher, Ph.D. – Dean Fisher was an ornithologist who had traveled around the world after resigning from the Navy. While in Australia on this trip, he got an idea for a research project having to do with ring-necked parrots and went to the University of Michigan to pursue that. He continued to travel the globe, seeking out birds to add to his life list. He was a great story-teller and had a gazillion stories to tell because he had been everywhere and done lots of stuff while there. Ornithology was hard, evolution and biogeography was fascinating and animal behavior became my passion as a result of him. He taught me the importance of a good story to drive home an idea. He also taught me that there was no amount of unpleasantness that should ever get in the way of science even if that meant driving into a hurricane making landfall in order to collect pelagic sea birds caught up in the storm.

Hebe Mace, Ph.D. – Dr. Mace was an English professor who taught technical writing. She taught me what it was to write clearly and how to write to a particular audience, both lessons I failed at in her class but think I have managed to become better at as I had more practice. She equipped me to write the paper that Fred Rainwater encouraged me to write.

Fred Rainwater, Ph.D. – Fred was my professor in undergraduate ichthyology and herpetology. Every day he would arrive 5-10 minutes early and begin putting the outline of the day’s lecture on the board. Neat, clean handwriting and a really sharp mind bound up in one of the nicest people you will ever meet. He knew his fish and he knew his herps. While serving as Dean of the College of Sciences, he advised me to pursue applied statistics if I was good at it and enjoyed it. He was good in the field but he was a great mentor in that he allowed his students the freedom to explore their own ideas. I enjoyed his courses so much that I asked to pursue a M.S. under his mentorship. He was even better as a graduate advisor. Some students and I had an idea for a side project and he endorsed it enthusiastically. We asked him to review the manuscript before we sent it off to a journal (our first) and he did. He had done so much to offer advice during the process that we asked him how he wanted to be ranked in authorship and he told us that we had done all the work and he had just advised so he should not be on the author list. It was published with two masters students, a Ph.D. student from another institution and an undergraduate as authors. He taught me what it means to value students and what freedom in academia meant. He was a gift that I will never be able to repay regardless of how many students I mentor in my career.

I have no idea what the Biology Department at SFASU is like now. I hope the current faculty have built on what people like Fred and Mike and Dean started but I really don’t know. If you are looking for good education, places like SFASU are underrated as places to get a good solid education in biology. Check them out if you have an interest in that.

And let me know about professors who influenced you in profound ways in the comments section.

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4 Comments leave one →
  1. Christina Ballard permalink
    May 19, 2016 7:41 pm

    Dr Slagle shaped my career. He told me about pharmaceutical sales after I took an Organic Chemistry class and decided med school and all the studying that went with it
    Wasn’t for me. I have been a rep for almost 20
    Years now and love it!!

  2. Matt Lee permalink
    May 18, 2016 10:35 pm

    Mike was the greatest man I ever met bar none. Your blog is great.

    Take care

    Matt Lee

  3. Martha Robertson Lee permalink
    May 18, 2016 5:45 pm

    I just came across your blog while searching on the Internet. Walter Robertson was my father. He passed away in July of 2015. It was such a nice surprise to see your kind words. He was an amazing man, father, and teacher! (I too had him for comparative anatomy.)

    • May 24, 2016 10:56 pm

      Martha, Nice to see your comments here. Your father is one big reason I went into academia. He was a great guy. I was sorry to see news of his passing. It was a pleasure to see your comment here.

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