Rebecca MacPherson chronicles how she made her passion for teaching a priority while earning her Ph.D. in genetics.
Back in the early 2000s, Lisa Bennett was a secondary education major at Clemson who had no way of knowing that one of her coworkers at a video rental store would go on to found one of the most successful educator development organizations in Zambia. Lusungu Sibande was just another employee in the trenches with Bennett, restocking DVDs and keeping a “naughty” list of late video returners.
Lusungu and her sister, Kondi, started A to Zed in 2006 and immediately invited Bennett to travel to Zambia with them. In 2016 Bennett was finally able to join the sisters, offering her abilities as an educator to help teachers in Zambia through professional development workshops. She became an instant believer, making plans to return in summer 2018.“I enjoyed helping teachers address what they may be lacking in classrooms,” Bennett said. “It’s very fulfilling to help them put proven methods into practice, and we can’t wait to go back.” And, she adds, “Lusungu and Kondi made me part of their family and an honorary Zambian citizen.”
Bennett worked with teachers and students in grades 5-9, but her work wasn’t confined to the classroom. A to Zed also tackles service-learning projects, such as helping teachers and students raise and sell crops, the proceeds of which get put back into schools. Members of A to Zed also found time to host a field day for Matthew 25, a local orphanage.
Bennett said the experience made her realize just how much the hardworking people of Zambia accomplish with limited resources. One teacher she observed used a single book and no other reading or writing materials to effectively teach a class of 40 students.
That experience taught Bennett an important lesson about the role of teachers: “In the end, it’s about me and what I have to give, and that’s expertise, heart and passion,” she said. This summer, she’ll take these talents back to teach — and learn — from the educators of Zambia.
CW: What do you enjoy most about your job? Or what’s the most satisfying thing about your job?
Mobley: There’s so much that I enjoy about my career, but perhaps my favorite part is that I am constantly learning something new. No day is ever the same as I am continually challenged to apply sociology in new ways in a diversity of contexts – in the classroom, in my research, both within the field and across other fields in my interdisciplinary research. I especially enjoy engaging in interdisciplinary research and teaching. While I have engaged in independent research, I have had the opportunity to engage in empirical research with colleagues from other discipline across campuss. According to Ernest Boyer’s definition of the “scholarship of integration,” interdisciplinary research consists of making connections across disciplines in order to advance understanding of complex scientific questions and social issues. Indeed, the “lone ranger” concept is rarely effective for investigating the issues that are central to my research efforts. Funding agencies are increasingly recognizing the value of interdisciplinary research and teaching. These efforts also support the recent call on the part of my college and university to increase interdisciplinary research. These research collaborations are beneficial and interesting to me both personally and professionally. I enjoy working with my colleagues to develop and implement creative approaches to challenges that would not otherwise emerge if I was working in isolation. Indeed, I am finding that the most innovative research often emerges at the interface of disciplines. Across campus, I think I am known to be a reliable collaborator who makes substantial contributions to projects and adds value to research teams through my expertise in sociological theory and methods. Together, we have applied for multiple research grants and co-authored research presentations and manuscripts. I have truly enjoyed these experiences!
CW: How do you balance teaching and research?
Mobley: I view both as inevitably intertwined with one another. For example, as I work on my research I am always seeking opportunities to enrich my teaching. And, students often raise questions in the classroom that inspire my research.
CW: Give me a brief description of your research. What piqued your interest in that area (s)?
Mobley: At the current time, my two main areas of research are in the area of environmental sustainability and engineering education. The two topics often overlap with one another, depending on the particular research effort. I have long been personally interested in environmental issues and feel lucky to be able to pursue my personal interests through the lens of the sociological perspective. I’ve been able to explore a vast variety of topics related to environmental sustainability, including human behavior as it pertains to water quality and water quantity, college student perceptions of environmental issues, the influence of formative experiences on the development of environmental concern, and public perception of a variety of sustainability related topics. For the past decade or so, I have been involved with an extensive research project related to engineering education, the MIDFIELD project. This project, headed up by Matt Ohland (formerly at Clemson University and now at Purdue University) involves a study of the academic experiences and pathways of engineering majors from 12 institutions. One part of the research team analyzes a longitudinal database of over a million student records from the 12 MIDFIELD institutions. I have been involved in the qualitative portion of the project, investigating a variety of research questions through focus groups and interviews with engineering transfer students. The most recent qualitative project focused on engineering transfer students and in Fall 2014, my colleagues and I received a NSF grant to investigate the experiences of student veterans at four institutions (University of San Diego, Clemson University, Purdue University, North Carolina State University). I also collaborate with colleagues from other disciplines, such as hydrogeology, to learn more about engineering education.
CW: What does this award mean to you…being chosen by your peers?
Mobley: I am so honored to be receiving this award, especially knowing it is coming from my peers. I’ve been walking by the Carillon Bell monument for nearly 20 years now, in awe of the people whose names are inscribed there. It means so much to me, especially knowing there were so many qualified candidates for the award. Recently, I was talking to a recipient of the Class of ’39 award and learned that one of the purposes of the award is to inspire faculty to do their bes,t and to go above and beyond expectations. This recognition has definitely inspired me! Little did I know when I was attending Clemson University in the early 1980’s that I’d be here 30 years later, pursuing the career of my dreams!
Astrophysicist Sean Brittain straddles two worlds
Sean Brittain has used some of the world’s most powerful telescopes to study the chaos swirling around a young star about 335 light years from Earth. Huge chunks of rock are slamming together to form what could be the first planets of a budding solar system.
Back home in Clemson, Brittain deals with a different kind of chaos each Tuesday and Thursday night during soccer season. He coaches a team of youths, ages 7-9.
“We’re working on passing the ball,” the father of three said with an easygoing smile.
Brittain’s feet are on Earth, but his eyes are often on the night sky. He led an international team of scientists that discovered evidence strongly suggesting a planet is orbiting a star known as HD100546. The team reported its findings in The Astrophysical Journal. News outlets around the globe covered the discovery in at least four different languages.
The planet would be at least three times the size of Jupiter, so there would be plenty of real estate. But if you’re looking to relocate, don’t book your ticket on the USS Enterprise just yet. The planet would be an uninhabitable gas giant. And even if you traveled at the speed of light, it would take more than four lifetimes to get there.
Astronomers are interested in the solar system for a different reason.
The work that Brittain’s team did built on previous research by a team that found a collapsing blob of gas and dust could condense into a planet in about one million years. That means astronomers believe they have found not one but two “candidate planets” orbiting HD100546.
Taken together, the findings could mark the first time astronomers have been able to directly observe multiple planets forming in sequence. It’s something astronomers have long believed happens but have never been able to see.
Other solar systems that astronomers have observed are either fully developed or too far away to see in the kind of detail that HD100546 offers.
“This system is very close to Earth, relative to other disk systems,” Brittain said. “We’re able to study it at a level of detail that you can’t do with more distant stars. This is the first system where we’ve been able to do this.
“Once we really understand what’s going on, the tools that we are developing can then be applied to a larger number of systems that are more distant and harder to see.”
AROUND THE CLOCK, AROUND THE WORLD
In one recent all-nighter, Brittain logged on to a video conferencing website to work with two collaborators, one in Tucson and one in Berkeley. The telescope they used was at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
The patchwork of faces on his screen looked like something out of “Star Trek,” Brittain said.
The team worked from 11 p.m. to 11 a.m. Clemson time, and then Brittain headed for the classroom.
“You finish observing, and you still have to teach class,” he said. “Your day job doesn’t get pushed aside.”
Brittain has the opportunity to observe the stars about four times a year. He collaborates with researchers all over the world, so conferences calls can be early in the morning.
“There’s no time of day when it’s 9-to-5 for everybody,” he said.
Brittain made three trips to Chile as far back as 2006 to gather data for the research he did on HD100546. He used telescopes at the Gemini Observatory and the European Southern Observatory.
Northern Chile is one of a few places in the world just right for high-powered telescopes, Brittain said. The weather is predictable, the skies are usually clear and the political climate is stable.
Each time Brittain went to Chile, he flew from Atlanta to Santiago, where he would spend the night. Then he would take another flight to Antofagasta, where he would catch a two-hour ride to the observatory. The city quickly gave way to a desert landscape, he said.
“It’s like being on Tatooine,” Brittain said, referring to the desert planet from “Star Wars.” “There’s no vegetation. It’s sand and rock, a really bleak landscape.”
AN ASTROPHYSICIST BY CHANCE
Brittain grew up watching “Star Wars,” but he isn’t a serious sci-fi fan. And he wasn’t the kind of kid who grew up gazing at the stars through a telescope in his backyard every night.
Brittain fell into astronomy after receiving his bachelor of science in chemical physics from LeTourneau University in Texas. He headed to Notre Dame to study the foundations of quantum mechanics but found that the adviser he wanted was retiring and not accepting new graduate students.
Brittain soon found another professor who was doing research into the organic chemistry of comets.
It seemed to be a fit considering Brittain’s chemistry background. Even better, the professor did some of his research at the W.M. Keck Observatory in Hawaii.
“Here I am in South Bend, Indiana, where it’s cold and gray, and here was an opportunity to go to Hawaii,” Brittain said.
Brittain has spun the opportunity into a successful career. He received his Ph.D. in 2004 and became a NASA-funded Michelson postdoctoral fellow at the National Optical Astronomy Observatory.
Brittain came to Clemson two years later with his wife, Beth, and their children, Olivia and Sam. They have since added a third child, Charlotte.
MEASURING SMALL CHANGES TO DETECT GALACTIC EVENTS
Brittain’s chemistry background helped get him an early start on using high-resolution spectroscopy to study the formation of stars and planets. It was a relatively new technique early in his career, he said, and has played a major role in his research on HD100546.
The technique enabled the team to measure small changes in the position of the carbon monoxide emission. A source of excess carbon monoxide emission was detected that appears to vary in position and velocity. The varying position and velocity are consistent with orbital motion around the star.
The favored hypothesis is that emission comes from a circumplanetary disk of gas orbiting a giant planet, Brittain said.
“Another possibility is that we’re seeing the wake from tidal interactions between the object and the circumstellar disk of gas and dust orbiting the star,” he said.
Brittain served as lead author on The Astrophysical Journal article. Co-authors were John S. Carr of the Naval Research Laboratory in Washington, D.C.; Joan R. Najita of the National Optical Astronomy Observatory in Tucson, Arizona; and Sascha P. Quanz and Michael R. Meyer, both of ETH Zurich Institute for Astronomy.
Mark Leising, the chair of Clemson’s Astronomy and Astrophysics Department, said Brittain’s work will raise the department’s international profile.
“I congratulate Dr. Brittain and his team on their excellent work,” Leising said. “Astronomers are now very good at finding already formed planets around many nearby stars, but it has been difficult to watch the planets in the process of forming.
“Using very clever techniques and the most advanced telescopes on Earth, they have accomplished that. It’s great to see our faculty working with leading institutions around the world to make discoveries at the forefront of astronomy.”
Brittain said he is looking forward to observing the solar system using more advanced telescopes, including the James Webb Space Telescope scheduled for launch in 2018 and the 30-meter telescopes that could be ready as early as 2022.
If there’s any similarity between Brittain’s research in space and his coaching on Earth, it’s that both take teamwork to be successful, he said. “No one is the boss, but every-one is working toward a common goal,” Brittain said.
You can read more about Brittain’s research at the following links:
Botanist, teacher, curator, scholar — Dixie Damrel encourages her students to experience the green world around them.
One step off the asphalt parking lot, Dixie Damrel enters another world.
It is a world of individuals, families, clans and communities. Damrel knows the names of thousands of the inhabitants, their Latin names and their familiar ones. She knows about their sex lives and their histories. And she is delighted to share what she knows.
Last semester, I tagged along on one of the weekly field trips to the world she loves. The Whitewater River access is inside the Duke Power Bad Creek property above Lake Jocassee. The students hardly had time to stretch from the van ride before Damrel got going. “Today, we’re going to visit four communities — early successional, pine-oak heath, rocky stream bed and an original acidic cove forest,” says Damrel. “We’ve got a lot to see.”
Dixie Damrel is a botanist, teacher, curator of the Clemson University Herbarium and newly minted Fulbright Scholar. A walk in the woods with Damrel is no ramble. You have to keep up physically and intellectually.
Botany is too important not to pay attention. No matter how you like your ribeye cooked, it started out as grass. Oxygen and energy, food and fuel, the green world is the primary production engine of the planet.
“Look at this,” Damrel instructs, bending a shrub branch for inspection. “Look at the leaves. What do you see?” The students lean in. Some pull another branch closer to see. “What’s different about these leaves? Look at the top. Now look at the underside. What’s different?”
A student takes a shot: “They’re gray.”
“Yes, they’re silvery gray!” Damrel responds. “This is Elaeagnus umbellata — silverberry — a deciduous shrub with green leaves above and silvery ones below.”
The students know not to move yet. There’s more — there’s always more — and sometimes a story.
“Look at the silver side of the leaves. Feel them. What’s different?”
No one offers, and Damrel doesn’t have time to wait them out. There are about three miles to cover, and dark clouds are gathering off in the distance over the lake.
“The leaves have scales. Now look at the berries. What do you see? Feel them.”
Some of the students see where this is going. “The skin is rough, like the leaves.”
“Yes! The berries have scales, too,” says Damrel, picking one of the ripe, red, pea-size berries. “You can taste them if you want.”
Damrel doesn’t allow eating unless she has tried the fruit on the preview trip she takes to scope out an area. Later, we will come to bear huckleberry, which has edible fruit, but she had not tried it. “It scared me,” she said.
But the silverberry is ok. Damrel pops one into her mouth. “How does it taste?” Sweetly tart is the verdict.
“Birds like the fruit and so do bears, and that helps the silverberry reproduce. The birds eat the berry, and the seed is eliminated along with bird poop, which acts as a coating of fertilizer when there’s the right place to grow.”
And grow it does, says Damrel. “It’s an invasive species brought to the U.S. to use as a wind break and erosion control.”
BEYOND SEEING FORESTS AS WALLS OF GREEN
I hear “look, look, look” over and over again, as Damrel imprints her legacy of “see for yourself and learn by looking” on her students. We stop at a sawtooth oak. It’s another invasive species, where good intentions to provide wildlife food were undone by unintentional consequences. Deer and other browsers will only eat the bitter acorns if no other food is available. No one checked with the animals.
There are quick stops at the sourwood — “it makes the best honey in the world,” Dixie declares. We admire the goldenrod flowers. “What kind of flowers are they?” Composite. Goldenrod gets a bad rap, says Damrel. It doesn’t cause hay fever because its pollen is too heavy and sticky to be windborne. Ragweed is the culprit.
Then, dog fennel sets off a story.
“Dog fennel is from the genus Eupatorium, part of the aster family. There was a king with a similar name. The king decided to eat small amounts of poison to build up tolerance to poison. He was an enemy of the Romans, and when they advanced on him, he attempted to poison himself, but it wouldn’t work. So finally he had to ask his friends to stab him, and they did.”
The king’s name was Eupator Dionysias, another name for Mithridates VI of Pontius, for whom the plant was named.
Damrel’s students listen, and I wonder what they think of all this. Is it simply a case of politely listening to a slightly eccentric elder?
“I love this class,” says Dan Blanchard, horticulture major. Every student I asked used the words “passionate” and “smart” to describe this spare, spry woman in worn jeans who wears her honey-brown hair in long braids that tangle in the cord holding her “nerd eye” — a magnifying loupe. She is the kind of teacher you remember for life and hope your kids find.
Thunder cuts the field trip short. We don’t make it to the old trees, survivors of European pioneers, colonials, settlers and capitalists. We quick-step back to the parking lot. Plant identification and plant lore have filled the afternoon. Rattlesnake orchids have astonishing sex lives involving moths. Buffalo nut is a member of the sandalwood family — “You’ve smelled sandalwood incense if you’ve ever been in a head shop” (students snicker). Yellowroot lives by streams, but it keeps from being washed away and stabilizes the banks because it is anchored in place by rhizomes, and its flexible stems bend but don’t break during flooding.
Over the course of the semester, students will learn and be quizzed about the names and key characteristics of 130 plants. “If I can get them to look more closely, beyond seeing forests as walls of green and groundcovers as carpets of green, they will see the world differently and ask questions,” says Damrel.
MARKERS OF ENVIRONMENTAL AND EVOLUTIONARY CHANGE
Damrel reckons she can identify and name 2,000 plants. “But I can’t remember my phone number,” she laughs. A couple of thousand seem like a lot of plants. How many plants are there in the world?
It should be a Google-able answer. Botanists have been collecting, naming and studying plants for centuries, but all they have is a best guess.
Their estimates range from 200,000 to 400,000, maybe more. Oddly, there are a lot more plant names than plant species. The problem is synonomy. Botanists think they have found a new species and name it, but many of these are synonyms — same plant named by someone else.
One international project has compiled the Plant List that contains 298,900 documented species, 477,601 synonyms and 263,925 still-to-be vetted names.
How do botanists figure out what they have collected? Often, it’s not enough to see a photo and read the description. Seeing the plant in person makes a difference between “looks a lot like” and certainty. But botanists cannot always travel to the corners of the world to see similar species; nor can they travel back in time if a species is extinct. Yet, there is a way for them to see beyond their range in space and time. There are herbaria.
An herbarium is a research archive of expertly dried and mounted plant specimens that identify and document a particular plant collected by botanists, students — anyone with an interest in plants — in a particular place and time. The specimens are arranged in special cabinets so that they can be removed and consulted by researchers. The largest herbaria have more-than-million-specimen collections started in the 1700s.
There are about 100,000 specimens in the Clemson herbarium housed in the Bob and Betsy Campbell Museum of Natural History. The oldest specimen dates to the 1860s and was collected by Henry William Ravenel, a South Carolina planter and botanist, who lived from 1814 to 1887.
Looking and comparing, researchers look for changes in biodiversity and plants coping with stresses. Drought and heat linked to climate change can trigger plants to adapt, giving rise to new species. Other times, plants disappear because of land-use change or from invasive plant populations crowding out the natives.
FROM DRAWERS AND SHELVES TO AN ONLINE DATABASE
Research demands are leading to new ways of looking at plants. High-definition digital images and the Internet provide extraordinary detail and accessibility for research. Clemson is part of the digitization initiative.
The herbarium is set to launch a four-year project to make digital images of its collection. The herbarium is included in a National Science Foundation grant that aims to build a digital inventory highlighting the Southeastern United States. Clemson’s specimen records will be part of a three-million plant dataset from 107 herbaria in 13 Southeastern states that will enable large-scale research in a region that has been a biodiversity hot spot for 100 million years, say botanists. The digital database will help researchers examine the effects of climate change, identify vulnerable species and help conserve regional biodiversity.
Clemson joins the University of South Carolina’s A.C. Moore Herbarium to coordinate digitizing plant collections statewide. Seven other colleges and universities are participating, including: Converse, Francis Marion, Furman, Newberry, Winthrop, USC Salkehatchie and USC Upstate. “I’m very proud that South Carolina has one of the largest numbers of herbaria participating of any state in the Southeast,” says Damrel.
The digitization will make collections at Clemson and at other institutions accessible via the Internet. The digitized data will eventually be publicly available through the iDigBio (Integrated Digitized Biocollections) specimen portal.
“There are specimens that have been around for 100-200 years, but they are in a drawer or on a shelf somewhere, and it’s hard to know where everything is and how to get the data you need,” iDigBio Director Larry Page said. “If it’s online, you can touch a button and find in seconds what might have taken you a lifetime to know was there.”
The work will start this summer, after Damrel returns from a field trip halfway around the world.
Damrel is one of 1,100 U.S. faculty and professionals who will travel abroad through the Fulbright U.S. Scholar Program in 2014-2015. The grant enables her to work and conduct botanical research in tropical Southeast Asia. She will lecture and research at the Sarawak Biodiversity Center and the Forestry Research Institute in Malaysia throughout the spring 2015 academic year.
“Ecologically, Malaysia is a fascinating place and a real treasure house of plant biodiversity,” Damrel says. “It holds some truly ancient ecosystems and has what some say are the oldest undisturbed equatorial tropical rainforests on earth. It is also facing some serious environmental challenges as there are new economic and social pressures connected with how the land should be used.”
Damrel will be working with the Sarawak Center’s Traditional Knowledge Program. It’s a project to gather plants and preserve oral histories and folk wisdom about plants used for cooking and healing. “I will be joining ethnobotanists who visit tribal peoples living in remote parts of the Sarawak highlands. We’ll use powerboats to go upriver and visit communities to gather plants and ask the people about how they use them.”
This is not Damrel’s first trip to the region. She accompanied her husband, David Damrel, an associate professor of comparative religion at USC Upstate, during his Fulbright award to Indonesia in 2008.
“In Java I realized how important it is for Americans — and our Clemson community and campus particularly — to take on a more global perspective,” Damrel says. “Living and working overseas you get to see the dimensions of a problem — environmental degradation, for example — in ways that you cannot fully appreciate from a classroom back home. In the same way, firsthand experiences with different peoples, cultures and world-views will help you grow in unexpected ways both as a person and as a scientist.”
Looking, looking, always looking.