Thursday, April 3, 2014

A Long Overdue "Thank You!" to My Mentors, or How I Became a Marine Scientist

"The fact that I can plant a seed and it becomes a flower, share a bit of knowledge and it becomes another's, smile at someone and receive a smile in return, are to me continual spiritual exercises." --Leo F. Buscaglia

I received a lovely message from one of my former students who took an Intro to Oceanography class from me a few years ago. What a lift to read that I'd had a positive influence on him! Because of me and my class, his career went in a completely different direction than he'd planned. He'd taken my class to fulfill a science elective requirement toward his business degree. He's now working on his master in environmental chemistry. He changed majors because I "got him excited about science," and made him "believe I could do it."

Maybe I've had that impact on other students--I hope I have--but to have it acknowledged...Wow. It made my day and more.

It also made me reflect back on the influential teachers I've had along the way. I am the person I am today, not only a marine scientist, but all of me, because of them. If I am a fraction as helpful to my students as these people were to me, my time in the classroom and lab, office and field will have been well-spent.

To get me started on my journey, I have two professors I need to thank whose names I can't even recall. As an undergrad at SUNY-Binghamton (now Binghamton University), I floundered from one major to the next, excelling most at partying. Until my introductory biology class. In a lecture hall with 300 students, I felt this now nameless professor was speaking directly to me, and I found my major. The second nameless zoology professor recommended I spend a summer at a field station. Although he gave that advice to a lecture hall with about 100 students in it, I again felt he was talking directly to me. I found Shoal's Marine Lab, and found my passion: marine science.

My Alma Mater's Logo

After a summer at Shoals, I transferred to the (then) College of the Virgin Islands (now University of the Virgin Islands) and that's where I had the honor, pleasure, and pain of being instructed, scolded, harangued, and mentored by the five most influential people in my life. I can't pick one above the others because each provided me with some different thing that I desperately needed at the time. Together, their guidance--sometimes loving, sometimes with a swift kick as needed--formed me into who I would become, and continues to mold me. Their influence put me on the path to my career in marine science, and made me want to "pay it forward" as a college professor. They also gave me the audacity to dream big and live big--enough to pursue my second career as a writer.

Long overdue as it may be, "THANK YOU"--and that's hardly sufficient for the debt I owe them--to my mentors: Sabino, Watlington, Ragster, Gorham, and MacLean.

When I arrived in St. Thomas alone, not knowing a soul, and somewhat adrift, Mark Sabino, took me under his wing, included me in the group, made me part of his family, and helped me feel I belonged. Sabino accepted each of us for who we were, and let us feel that was okay. He showed by example how to embrace life on our own terms, not those of anyone else. From him, we learned that fun, hard work, and excellence aren't mutually exclusive. Mark showed me how to embrace life, and live it well.

My favorite view in the world:
UVI, Brewer's Bay, and Saba and Flat Cay in the distance.

Professor Watlington made us all better than we were. He saw the potential in each of us, even when we didn't. In his eyes, the most irresponsible among us, the biggest partiers, the screw-ups, still had it in us to go on and become PhDs, MDs, community leaders--productive, intelligent adults. And we did. We fed off his positive energy and got excited about physics, about geology, about the natural environment, and the history of the Virgin Islands. We learned through his example, that we could and should have a wide range of interests, hobbies, and activities; to not be one-dimensional. I became better and more than I ever thought I could because he believed I could, because he acted like I already was, and so I lived up to it. Roy showed me how to exceed expectations, my own and others.

Dr. Ragster became my undergraduate advisor and I became her headache. She set some pretty high standards for herself and expected us all to do the same. One of the worst days of my life was when I had to explain to her that I'd failed statistics because it was an 8:00 a.m. class and I bartended until 4:00 a.m. then had after-hours parties to go to until 6 or 7. Her look of disappointment devastated me. She didn't give me the benefit of the doubt, but instead demanded better. She asked for results, not excuses. She made me work harder than I wanted to. I must have done okay because a few years later, she hired me to work for her. LaVerne showed me how to challenge myself.

The William P. MacLean Marine Science Center.
When I returned to UVI with the Sea Grant Program in 1992,
my office was behind that window to the left of the door, steps away from Brewer's Bay. 

Dr. Gorham was my de facto advisor both in school and life. He mentored me in the best way possible: He gave me the latitude to screw up--at times royally--and the trust to let me find my way back after I did. He never told me an answer, but kept questioned me, making me look more closely, forcing me (sometimes kicking and screaming) to think critically, making me figure it out and draw logical, evidence-based conclusions. Because he didn't tell me the answer, but made me work things out, I gained a real appreciation of the power of the scientific method, and the nuances and structure of it. The most amazing part of Dr. Gorham's influence on me is that I rarely felt it. It wasn't until later, in grad school and in life, that I realized what an incredible gift his guidance was. He let me go, falter, stumble, and back-track while he just stood back, letting me know he was there if I needed him, not judging me, not doing the work for me, but supporting me. How much easier it would have been for him to step in and tell me the answer, tell me what to think, tell me what would or wouldn't work. But he didn't. He trusted the scientific method--critical thinking--and my own intellect enough to patiently wait for me to get there. He gave me the confidence to make mistakes, and the knowledge that our greatest progress comes from them, as long as we learn from them. He encouraged me to go to grad school and made me believe I could succeed. Bill gave me confidence in myself.

Finally, Dr. MacLean, who had been something of a bogey man to me as I progressed through my classes, became my hero. Dr. MacLean had a reputation as a hard-ass. The sign on his office door announced, "Be aware that if you ask me to write you a recommendation, it will reflect the grade you received in my class. A B-grade gets a B-recommendation, a C gets a C-recommendation, etc." While students occasionally received an A on his tests, the number who'd gotten an A in his classes could be counted on one hand. He made us work, he demanded that we not only read the book, but understand it. We couldn't spit back memorized words, but had to think and explain ourselves to demonstrate real understanding. There was no leeway between an almost right answer and a wrong answer. He assumed we were all capable and competent, assumed we could all keep up or we wouldn't be in his class. He didn't talk down to us and didn't slow down his lectures for us. We surprised ourselves my keeping up. He gave us a glimpse into what our science careers would look like by inviting us to his house to have discussions on breakthroughs in the field  over dinner, and going on impromptu field trips. He gave me my first glimpse into what it would feel like to not be a student, but a scientist, a colleague. When I received the first 100 he'd ever given on an exam, I cried. Getting one of the few, hard-earned As in his class, and his recommendation for grad school gave me real pride. He made me believe I could be more than I'd ever imagined. 

Each of these five people are larger than life to me. The are my heroes, mentors, and role models. Eventually, they became my colleagues and friends, as well. I wouldn't be who I am today if it wasn't for them, individually, and together as my UVI professors. I swell with pride thinking about my alma mater, the University of the Virgin Islands, because it--and they in particular--made me who I am today.

I caught my love of science and teaching, and of sharing my passion for discovery with my students from Sabino, Watlington, Ragster, Gorham, and MacLean. I hope it's as contagious to my students as they made it for me. I'm so pleased that, for at least one of my students, I succeeded.

Who were your role models and mentors? Leave a comment and tell us about them. Better yet, give them a call or send them a message letting them know it!
Here's another testament to the impact Bill MacLean had on us from another former student:

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