N.B. In memoriam: Joel Martin, a man who changed my life. It is also an homage to all who teach.
I grew up in a small town – a very small town – in the foothills of the Arkansas Ozarks. Of all the things a young boy from the backwoods might aspire to be, a scientist would have been an unlikely choice, and an even more unlikely outcome. It's no exaggeration to say that an amazing teacher named Joel Martin is a major reason why I've been privileged to spend my life as a researcher, working at the intersection of computing and the sciences. Though I mourn Joel's recent passing with a heavy heart, I celebrate the life he lived and the students he touched. (Joel's obituary is here.)
Over forty years ago, he was my science teacher for five years, from junior high school through high school. (I told you the town was small). He was *the* science teacher, and I took every course he taught. Along the way, we taught one another many other things, about imagination, about belief in the possible, about the power of observation, and about the importance of critical thinking when resources were few and precious.
My senior year of high school, I worked as Joel's laboratory assistant. It was his "play time," his only hour of non-classroom time during the school day. By that point, we were close, as much friends as student and teacher. We devised laboratory experiments for his classes using our meager, irreplaceable supplies. With no budget for equipment or chemicals, sometimes that meant using twenty-year-old supplies in rusted containers and hoping for the best. They were empirical experiments in a literal sense. Substituting similar compounds, based on the periodic table, almost always led to fizzle rather than a student engaging chemistry demonstration. I soon came to appreciate Marvin the Martian's lament about the lack of a kaboom.
More than the often errant experiment preparation, though, we talked about science, philosophy, life and the joy of discovery. It was during one of those conversations that he did something extraordinary, something that remains burned in my memory after over forty years. In response to a scientific question, he said, "You know more about that than I do." He knew many things I did not, but in this case, it was the truth.
That small gesture of intellectual respect meant so much to me. It was a bond of trust and an expression of his faith in my knowledge and my capability. Beyond that, he shared my passion and enthusiasm, and he savored my excitement when I was teaching myself differential calculus – limits and derivatives were cool, even if nobody else in school shared that particular intellectual thrill. All I knew was that scientists knew calculus, so I'd best get started. (At the time, the school was too small to offer any mathematics classes beyond algebra and plane geometry.)
As we worked in the classroom, I talked about my dreams of being a scientist, of living a life of the mind. Of course, I had never met a practicing scientist, and it seemed farfetched that anyone from our little town could become such a thing. Along the way, I realized this had been Joel's dream too, one cut short by circumstances and family obligations. This I could understand, for the wildest dream my parents harbored for me was that I might get a college education, where someday I might find happier economic circumstances. Joel gave me hope; he believed in my dream, even when I was filled with doubts. He knew implicitly what Plutarch, the Greek essayist, meant when he wrote, "A mind is not a vessel to be filled, but a fire to be lighted."
And Yet It Moves!
I took two biology courses from Joel, the standard one required of all students and the advanced course with just a handful of fellow classmates. I noticed that there were entire chapters of our textbook, all on evolution, that he skipped with nary a classroom reference. I asked him one day, when other students were not around, "Why aren't we talking about evolution? We both know it is the critical underpinning of all of biology." With a wan smile, Joel answered, "Of course it is. But if I teach that, I will lose my job."
It took some courage on my part to even ask the question, because my family and I, and most of the community, were conservative, evangelical Christians. Yet I found myself facing the age old conundrum, one encountered by so many, of belief system and obviously contradictory scientific facts. Or in the apocryphal words of Galileo, "E pur si muove" (And yet it moves). Whether evolution or climate change, I have learned to never fear the questions, and always follow the facts, wherever they may lead.
This was also my first introduction to the power of social forces to stifle intellectual inquiry and reject overwhelming scientific evidence. It also made me realize the difficult choices some teachers must make, then and now. Joel was right; he would have lost his job, and we would all have been the less for it. That conversation has remained our mutual secret until now. Parenthetically, it is why academic tenure matters so much.
Science Fair Road Trip
Perhaps no expression of Joel's faith was greater than his support for my science fair experiment. The little school had never had a science fair before, but he decided we should, and I wanted to make him proud. In a forward nod to biomass production, my project was entitled, "Hormonal growth stimulation of unicellular and colonial algae." Joel helped me order the algae and gibberellins from a research supply company, and I built a controlled light apparatus, then measured the growth of Chlorella and Volvox in response to various gibberellin doses using our only good microscope. (My father was not happy that the experimental apparatus sat in our living room for six weeks. But, it was the only heated room in the house, and I needed something approximating a controlled environment. Fortunately, my mother intervened, as only mothers can.)
After I was fortunate enough to win the biochemistry division of the regional science fair, Joel packed my display in the school's driver's education car and drove all night to take me to the state science fair, which was held that year in Magnolia, Arkansas, on the state's southern border. There, I was surprised (and thrilled) to take first prize in biochemistry, and I just missed a trip to the national science fair. When we returned, Joel insisted that I set up my little display at the PTA meeting. He then embarrassed me by calling me to the front of the auditorium to present a medallion for science excellence. I will never forget how he beamed at me like a proud father.
Thank You, My Friend
I believe each child is born a scientist, with an innate curiosity about all things. Nurturing, supporting, and shaping this most fragile of things, unbounded curiosity, is the privilege and sacred duty of teachers. This is not mere epistemological sophistry; it is the quintessence of our humanity. Joel lived this philosophy.
In the spirit of Chaucer's cleric, Joel was the embodiment of the adage "Gladly would he teach, and gladly learn." In my mind's eye, I see him walking into school with his briefcase filled to overflowing with books and papers; I hear him explaining ecosystem dynamics, covalent bonds, and mitosis; but most of all, I remember the passion and excitement in his voice.
Joel, my friend and mentor, yours was a life well lived. On behalf of generations of students, thank you for believing in our dreams.
Because of you, I am a scientist. I will always be in your debt.