E. K A T H L E E N . A R C H E R
The following feature story appeared in the campus publication Mosaic in February, 1999.
CULTIVATING A SENSE OF WONDER IN NATURE
"Students in Associate Professor of Biology E. Kathleen Archers classes learn to see the forest and the trees. In the laboratory, students hone their observation skills by drawing, in detail, the cellular structures of plants they see under the microscope. And they learn to use their reasoning and interpretive skills to examine the intricate relationship that exists between the environment and the human race. For example, in teaching plant nutrition, Archer explains how nitrogen is so important that its commercial availability to U.S. farmers in the 1940s dramatically changed the nations ability to produce enough food to feed people. But while the nitrogen helped to produce bountiful crops, it also caused environmental problems, such as water pollution.
A Trinity faculty member since 1990, Archer has always enjoyed teaching but notes that "plant biology is really my first love. It was the thing that hooked me into science." And hooking people into science is exactly what Archer herself accomplishes as one of five faculty members who team teach the introductory course "Cells, Metabolism, and Heredity," which all aspiring biology majors take. With her lucid explanations, illustrative diagrams, and analogies that draw upon ordinary experiences, Archer makes an impression from the start.
Suma S. Magge 01, a sophomore who expects to major in biology, says she loved Archer from the first. "Shes very clear and concise in her teaching. Shes very straightforward and to the point," Magge says. Moreover, Magge found that Archer had a way of making the material seem relevant and helped her to grasp more fully how plants contribute to our lives. "I couldnt believe plants were that important," she says.
"Shes always striving to find new and better ways to help students understand the concepts," says Senior Lecturer and Biology Laboratory Coordinator Michael A. ODonnell, who coordinates the introductory course and is thus familiar with Archers pedagogical techniques. Archers approach includes creative and compelling demonstrations. She may use balloons to show how guard cells in plants control transpiration (the process of losing water), or use metal shavings on an overhead projector to demonstrate the concept of diffusion (how particles disperse from areas of high concentration to areas of low concentration).
On the cutting edge
A true scientist, Archer is intrigued by the newest discoveries in her field. Her course on "Recombinant DNA Technology" is so up-to-the-minute that students use scientific journals and websites, rather than textbooks, to keep pace. The class is most closely related to her research as a specialist in plant physiology and development. Archers research focuses on how plants chloroplast structures interact with and regulate other structures in the cell.
Suma Magge can attest that students who work with Archer on her research learn a lot more than the difficult lab techniques. She says that among other things, Archer has taught her that neatness and precision count, as do organization, proper note-taking and current lab journals, which are important reference material as scientists develop their work. Michael ODonnell observes, "She attracts some of the best students in her research lab year after year because they know they are going to be intellectually challenged and that they are going to have the good, close relationship that they should have with their research mentor." Nicole P. Hanley 99, a biology major who intends to work in the biotechnology industry upon graduation, has been a student researcher in Archers lab since her sophomore year. She says Archer, whom she describes as very patient, "has allowed me to do a lot of things on my own, even if I make mistakes."
This fall, Archer had a chance to explore interdisciplinary questions while teaching a new course on "Biotechnology, Agriculture, and World Hunger." The course addressed the history, science, and politics of world hunger, and explored whether the application of biotechnology can effectively increase the worlds food supply, and, if it can, whether biotechnology is likely to be used to this end. Discussions included many perspectives, and in some of the written work students had the opportunity to choose whether they wanted to focus on a political angle, or an environmental angle, or some other aspect of the complex issues. But the hands-on work of discovery was at the heart of the course. Archer had her students extracting DNA from an onion and, during a discussion of protein and its importance to the worlds diet, making their own tofu from soybeans.
Archers goal is not to convert students into biology majors and scientists, rather it is to impart an appreciation for the wonder of nature. "If my students can get a little bit of that sense of wonder from my classes, then thats a good thing," she says.