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A teacher can never tell where his influence stops…

by Donald Prothero, Nov 23 2011

JIngmai O'Connor '04 collecting fossils in the Triassic Ichigualasto Formation, Argentina

A teacher affects eternity; he can never tell where his influence stops.

—Henry Adams

In teaching you cannot see the fruits of a day’s work. It is invisible and remains so, maybe for 20 years.

—Jacques Barzun


Having taught at small liberal arts colleges (first Vassar, then Knox College in Illinois, now Occidental College in Los Angeles and also Caltech in Pasadena) for over 30 years now, I’ve experienced all sorts of highs and lows. Sure, there are the bored unmotivated students, the nasty administrators and colleagues, the grind of teaching all my own labs with no help, and teaching the same intro courses year after year, the low pay for long hours with no support for research, the difficulty of getting any time off from teaching to attend essential professional meetings. But there are also the pluses: flexibility of schedule, freedom to teach what I want to teach with minimal interference from above, the small classes where I really get to know the students, and can make sure they understand the material,

But the best benefit of all is the outstanding students who want to do research as undergrads. Since we have no grad program, for years I’ve been treating undergrads as grad students and getting them involved in research. I include them in my field crews or museum research trips (where they find their own projects), help them attend professional meetings and do their own presentations, and help them publish their research. I’ve had many such students over the years, including over 50 different student coauthors on quite a few of my papers. Some, like John Foster ’89, have made it professionally (he’s Curator of Paleontology at the Museum of Western Colorado), and many others are working in environmental or energy firms, earning twice what I make. One never knows how you change the lives of your students when you work closely with them. Of the recent grads, Linda Donohoo-Hurley ’00 finished her Ph.D. at Univ. New Mexico—and I inadvertently introduced her to her future husband, John Hurley, when she presented  our research at a Penrose Conference I organized. Others are about to finish their doctorates. These include Jonathan Hoffman ’03, who came specifically to study with me (M.A. at Florida, nearly done with his Ph.D. at Wyoming);  Josh Ludtke ’04. who took care of my eldest son at times (M.S. at San Diego State, finishing his Ph.D. at Univ. Calgary); and Kristina Raymond ’08, just finishing her master’s at ETSU. Our program is small (only 3-7 graduating geology seniors each year, yet we have 5 full-time tenured faculty), but we turn out a lot of good grad students per capita.

And then there are those cases where you can never imagine how far your influence extends. I remember the first time I met one of our new students, Jingmai O’Connor, over ten years ago. She came to us from La Canada High School, one of the best in the state, with a fabulous grades, SATs, and lots of AP credits. When I first met her, she was a bit shy and timid (she still insists on calling me “Professor” even when most students are on a first-name basis with me), but also very motivated. She’s half-Chinese, half-Irish (hence the unique name), and her mother is a geologist affiliated with USC and teaching at Pasadena City College, so she knew about geology and was sure she wanted to be a volcanologist. I told her about the research opportunities in that direction, but as a frosh I suggested that she should take some more classes and see what else interested her.

Then she was in my “Evolution of the Earth” class and beat everyone for the highest grade. The same thing happened in Sedimentary Geology. But when she took Paleontology, I could see that she was really catching fire. Before the class was over, she came to tell me that she was much more interested in paleontology than in volcanology and wanted to do research with me.

This is always the challenging part. Because they are undergrads with only limited experience in paleontology, I can’t just make a suggestion and leave them alone to sink or swim as a Ph.D. student is expected to do. I want them to do as much of the work themselves as possible (given their backgrounds), but  I don’t want to give them a project that is too challenging for students of their level so they require me to most of the heavy lifting. Luckily, she asked if there were opportunities to work in China and use her ability to speak Mandarin, so I thought of my friend and colleague Dr. Xiaoming Wang at the Natural History Museum of Los Angeles County. I emailed him for ideas, then we went to visit him, where he showed us this recently discovered mustelid jaw from Mongolia that was from a genus, Sthenictis, previously only known from North America. He had it in his collections but hadn’t worked on it yet, so he let Jingmai make it  her project. At my suggestion, she applied and won a Richter Fellowship to send her to China that summer, and then Dr. Wang took her with his crew to Inner Mongolia, where they collected paleomagnetic samples of the Pliocene Gaotege beds for dating in our lab. Since I  had lots of NSF and PRF grant money that year, I took her (and 2 other students) with me to New  York for a full week of work  in the American Museum of Natural History, where they each pursued different projects on the fossils there. Jingmai was able to compare her Mongolian specimen to every important Sthenictis specimen in North America (they were all in the American Museum, as they often are), and it was the foundation for her senior honors project the following year (eventually published with additional coauthors—Tseng et al., 2009). Meanwhile, she analzyed her Mongolian paleomagnetic samples in our Oxy Paleomagnetics Laboratory (one of the five best labs in the world), and we published the results (O’Connor et al., 2008). She did additional field work with me and 4 other students in my field crew in May 2003, when I gave them the grand tour of classic paleontological sites from New Mexico to the Big Badlands, all while collecting paleomagnetic samples for numerous projects for them all to work on (all of which have since been published). My favorite memory of her from that field trip was when it was her turn to drive, she’d play obnoxious Asian  techno-dance-pop on the CD player, even though she didn’t understand a word of what they were saying in Korean or Japanese.

Jingmai finished her senior honors comps project and graduated in just three years (she had a lot of AP credits). She had numerous choices for grad school, but decided to work with Dr. Luis Chiappe of the L.A. Natural History Museum on the earliest birds from the Cretaceous of China. Chiappe soon had her paid for doing research in Beijing for months at a time, studying all the crucial specimens that only the Chinese workers knew about. In only 5 years, she completed all her grad school requirements and defended her dissertation in 2009, so she went from high school to Ph.D. in only 8 years. She already has a number of papers published on Chinese enantiornithine birds (she’s the world’s expert on them now). She has spent two more years on postdocs in Beijing, continuing this research while trying to find a position in the horrible job market for paleontologists that they all must face.

So it is with great pride that I saw the latest bulletin over the science internet web pages: Jingmai’s latest project has just been published in the prestigious Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, and is all the rage in the science media right now. Among the many cool specimens she worked on in China is one of the peculiar feathered non-avian dinosaur Microraptor gui (the one with wing feathers on its legs as well as on its hands) with a smaller bird inside its stomach. This is not only proof that these feathered dinosaurs ate birds, but they probably were arboreal and good fliers if they did so.  There are all sorts of cool implications of this study, not only about the biology of feathered non-avian dinosaurs, but also about their behavior. Indeed, specimens with another fossil in their stomach contents are relatively rare, but are indisputable proof of prehistoric behavior, something we rarely get to see. I’m sure she’s swamped with the usual swarm of reporters trying to get interviews and stories from  her, and she’ll handle it very well. It’s a nice problem to have to face!

And as I read the stories on line, I think back to that day when she first came to my office and said she liked paleontology more than volcanology….



O’Connor, J., Prothero, D.R., Wang, X., Li, Q., and Qiu, Z. 2008. Magnetic stratigraphy of the Pliocene Gaotege beds, Inner Mongolia. New Mexico Museum of Natural History and Science Bulletin 44:431-436.

Tseng, Z.J., O’Connor, J.K., Wang, X., and Prothero, D.R. 2009. The first Old World occurrence of the North American mustelid Sthenictis (Carnivora, Mammalia). Geodiversitas 31(4): 743-751.

12 Responses to “A teacher can never tell where his influence stops…”

  1. Azmnhmember says:

    What a great, and inspirational story. Being a teacher is one of the hardest jobs there is. Teacher’s are invaluable… and success stories like this are why. Thanks for being part of the solution.

  2. As a former student of Dr. Prothero’s and the other geology faculty at Occidental College, I can attest to the depth and breadth of a great teacher’s influence on his or her students. After getting my geology degree from Oxy, I did not go into academia, as his examples above did. Instead, I became an editor, and eventually a senior editor, with a major textbook publishing company that creates science textbooks for junior high and high school markets. I found great joy in sharing all the fascinating workings of our Earth with thousands of students through text, images, and activities. I am fortunate to have been able to extend the reach of my professors by sharing my love of geology with students who maybe, someday, will apply to college to become the next generation of geologists.

  3. L Michele Lafferty says:

    We never know the full impact we have on others when we interact with them. That’s why it is so important to make certain we do not crush their spirit. I’m sure seeing your students take flight is rewarding beyond measure for you.

  4. Janet Camp says:

    I did my BA at a small state university with no graduate program in my field, and I experienced the same nurturing environment that you describe. I co-authored a paper with a professor who saw a great deal more in me than I saw in myself at the time. Another let me be a teaching assistant and encouraged me give a paper at a professional meeting (nearly unheard of for undergrads). They pushed me into honors classes, and gave oral exams so we’d get familiar with that process. These professors were all graduates of very prestigious universities (Harvard, Berkeley, Cornell) who were attracted to the geographical area we lived in. They gave me opportunities I never would have had at a larger college and best of all, they gave me a marvelous education in basic science and critical thinking.

    I may have disappointed them by not going on to get those graduate degrees. I raised a family instead. I hope they don’t regret helping to make me a skeptic and a voracious consumer of scientific literature. My humble BA has served me well and made me a tough master as a mother to my four grown up skeptics.

    Thank you for offering this reflection on the value of education and for introducing us to the marvelous Ms. O’Connor and her fellow explorers.

  5. Greg Laden says:

    Apropos Henry Adams, it is worth noting (mainly for fun) what when he said that thing which is embroidered on pillows and given to teachers he was being rather cynical!

    Apropos the point of your blog post: Yeah, I know! I’ve supervised more PhD students than I’ve had research oriented UG students, but the UG work has been among the greatest success in terms of research projects, and now that I think about it, those undergrads are among those who have kept the closest touch or have remained good friends to a higher degree.

  6. anna says:

    Cool story!

    Just by the by, mind changing that “his” in the title to “their”? Thanks.

    • Donald Prothero says:

      It’s a direct quote (as you see from the first epigraph), so I didn’t want to change it. Sorry, when Henry Adams wrote it, the language was indeed very sexist….

      • Janet Camp says:

        Arghhhh! It is NOT good grammar to simply substitute “their” for “him”–not unless the subject is plural! This horrid device has become commonplace and grates mightily on the nerves of those of us who still care about grammar. I realize that always using “him or her”, “he or she”, etc., can be awkward, but I encourage people to try using plural subjects if they want to use “their”. One person cannot be “their”. I’m as feminist as the next woman my age who was denied equal citizenship, but bad grammar is not the answer.

      • Mike Keesey says:

        Wrong, Janet. Singular “they” has a long and illustrious career, including Shakespeare and Thackeray:

  7. mihelangelo ricci says:

    ti invio il mio catalogo 2012 Dinosauri e Animali preistorivi se guardi il sito vedrai le mie sculture.
    Spero di avere tua risposte.
    Michelangelo Ricci

    La Bottega di Michelangelo S.r.L.
    modellismo didattico Made in Italy.