June 20, 2018
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One summer of lizards that changed a life

By Robin Clifford Wood, Special to the BDN

In the course of interviewing people for this column, I have discovered that many life histories include a pivotal event that changes everything. I recently heard a particularly unusual “pivotal event” from Steve Ressel, who has been teaching science at College of the Atlantic for nearly 20 years. The glorious summer that changed the course of Steve’s life involved daily outdoor excursions, a pillowcase, and many hundreds of live lizards.

Before that summer of 1984, Steve told me, “I was sort of adrift.” Two years of teaching middle school science had left him uninspired.

“It was not a good fit,” he said. So Steve left teaching with no clear plan. He did some landscaping, painted houses, then got a job at a microbiology lab near his home in Pennsylvania.

Surrounded by medical and graduate students, Steve was reminded of his love for science and intrigued by the idea of graduate study. He knew, however, that hands-on outdoor work had far greater appeal for him than days spent in a laboratory. He looked for a graduate program with lots of field work, and he found it at the University of Vermont.

“Their lab was full of lizards and snakes, which was a good sign,” he said.

He began a master’s program in zoology at UVM in the fall of 1983, advised by Joe Schall. The following May, Schall sent Steve to a field station in Hopland, Calif., to study lizards.

“That time at the field station was the most special I ever had … I went out every day in boots, shorts, and a T-shirt, with a pillowcase in my hand for collecting lizards all day.”

I couldn’t suppress a smile. “That wouldn’t be heaven for a lot of people,” I said.

“Well,” Steve laughed, “it was for me. I was surrounded by wildlife and natural history. That summer turned me into a biologist.”

A measure of just how profound that experience was for Steve is a letter he wrote on May 7, 2004. Steve wrote to his former adviser, who was still working in the same lab at UVM where Steve did his graduate work:

“Dear Joe — Twenty years ago today I left Vermont in my car for Hopland.” He went on to express his gratitude to his old adviser for taking him on as a student and for leading him to his life’s passion.

After completing his doctorate at the University of Connecticut in 1993, Steve looked around for jobs. His wife, Karen, happened upon the job listing at College of the Atlantic, but Steve had never heard of the school. The next day, a colleague told him that a new graduate student in their program was a COA grad, so Steve went to talk to her.

“Two and half hours later I left her office! I’d never heard anyone talk so passionately about an undergraduate experience,” he said.

Today, Steve is equally passionate about the school where he was hired to both teach and be the director of its natural history museum nearly 20 years ago.

“One of the joys of being at College of the Atlantic is the administration’s actual promoting of teaching outside.” Even though COA has expanded the more lab-based subject areas of cellular and molecular biology, field-based science remains at the core of so much that they do.

I asked Steve about the fact that he is an avid teacher today, having once left teaching as the “wrong fit.”

“When I was first out of college,” he said, “I was teaching in a prescribed way, very by-the-book. It wasn’t inspiring. Now, I just want to share what I’d be doing anyway, and it’s great to bring people along.”

Looking back, Steve realizes that his inclinations were evident at an early age. As a boy, he would go outdoors with his siblings in the morning and not return until dinnertime.

“I didn’t think there was anything special about my childhood, but all day outdoors doesn’t happen much anymore,” he said. For a lot of young people today, a three-hour field trip might be the longest time they have been outside at one stretch.

Although all day outdoors was the norm for many kids when Steve was young, there was one way in which he was unique.

“I was that kid who came home with crayfish, turtles, snakes or a baby bunny in hand (or pocket),” he said.

And yet, lacking any mentor to direct that passion, Steve’s life went in other directions. After childhood, he never again experienced the same degree of immersion in the natural world – until Joe Schall sent him to California. That’s when he found the passion that burst open his inspiration to learn, study and teach. For some of us, it seems, finding one’s path is simply rediscovering the passion of our youth.

“In the summer of ’84, I was that kid again,” he said.

Robin Clifford Wood welcomes feedback and suggestions for future stories. You can reach her at robin.everyday@gmail.com.


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