Summer 2009: Of Note
Oxford Biology Professor Eloise Carter is both teacher and field guide
Listen to an interview with Professor Eloise Carter at Oxhouse Science Center, part of the Oral History Project from the President's Commission on the Status of Women.
By Mary J. Loftus
Field Botany, in which students investigate the native plants of the Piedmont region of Georgia with Professor of Biology Eloise Carter, is one of Oxford College’s most popular courses.
“Together we closely observe this world, learning how to read the characteristics of plants in the diverse habitats of field, outcrop, forest, and urban swamp,” says Carter, who teaches the class each spring semester.
And Carter’s students often continue their explorations long after leaving Georgia’s oaks and redbuds behind, crediting their former professor with setting them on the path to science careers.
Nick Pyenson 00Ox 02C, a paleobiologist who has done field research in Africa, New Zealand, Europe, and the Pacific coast, says his experiences at Oxford—and especially in Carter’s course—“taught me that science happens both inside the classroom and outside. It all goes back to learning my trees and wading through streams in Newton County.”
Pyenson studies the evolution of four-limbed animals that have made the transition from living on land to living in the sea. “For example, sea turtles, seals, sea cows, and whales are all different groups of animals whose ancestors once lived on land,” says Pyenson, a research fellow in the department of zoology at the University of British Columbia. “I’m interested in what the fossil record can tell us about any common causes and consequences.”
Carter, who has taught more than two decades of Oxford students, says the opportunity for hands-on research is crucial, as is a smaller class size: she never accepts more students in a science class than can fit into a lab (around twenty-four). Biology majors must take part in peer research teams and develop independent projects.
Oxford Associate Professor of Biology Nitya Jacob restructured the introductory biology curriculum a few years ago with input from Carter and other colleagues. Faculty mentoring, she says, has proven results. “Students are exposed to the process and rigor of research by participating in a faculty research project,” she says. “Several have gone on to present their work at the meeting of the Association of Southeastern Biologists.”
Courtesy Catherine Young
Catherine Young 00Ox 02C, an entomologist, says she was “pretty much headed for a career in biology from birth,” but that Oxford nurtured this with its smaller classes and emphasis on field research: “My roommate/lab partner and I often borrowed collecting equipment on weekends to see what was living in the Oxhouse pond, or did Gram stains of random environmental samples.”
Young has combined her talent in art with her zest for science through projects such as watercolor illustrations of the mosquito species she studies. “I’m interested in the beautiful and fascinating world of loathsome, bloodsucking creatures,” she jokes.
Colin Russell 99Ox 01C planned to become a physician until he took Carter’s classes. “Eloise is a fabulous and inspiring teacher,” says Russell, who studies viruses at the University of Cambridge. “She was the first person to give me a shot at research, working on a previously undescribed caterpillar that lives on rock outcrops in eastern Georgia. By that time, I was convinced that I wanted to be a scientist.”