Wheelwright not just for the birds
From Biology Professor Nat Wheelwright's corner office in Druckenmiller, one can marvel at the majesty of the Bowdoin Pines, a shelter for wildlife and an endless source of fascination.
"My laboratory is outside the door," Wheelwright said, smiling as he gazes out generous windows.
Bowdoin is known for the strength of its science programs, and if one traces the strength of any program to the people who teach it, it is easy to understand why our school can boast. Wheelwright said that Bowdoin offers its science professors an "unusual, but optimal, balance between teaching and professional engagement."
What does that mean?
To Wheelwright, it means that Bowdoin recognizes that teaching science demands a hands-on approach. "It's simply the way you do science," he said.
As Director of the Bowdoin Scientific Station at Kent Island, Wheelwright has plenty to put his hands on, and plenty of time to do it. Each summer he leads a team of around eight undergraduates, several graduate students, and other faculty members to do intensive research at the facility, located on an island in the Bay of Fundy. There, he focuses on his research while guiding others in their own projects. He especially enjoys how the two-month field season allows students to escape the culture of the lecture hall and allow their learning to grow from pure curiosity and enthusiasm.
Wheelwright got an early start in teaching when he was an 11 year-old in western Massachusetts, serving as a guide at a local Audubon nature sanctuary. Teaching has always seemed to be natural to him, but despite a fascination with natural history, biology was not always the field of choice.
"When I was a sophomore at Yale a friend of mine at the School of Forestry told me about a course he was taking where they identified trees by twigs they found in the snow," Wheelwright remembers. "I joined the class and had a blast, and suddenly I switched from an English major to Biology."
He took six classes a semester in order to graduate in four years, immediately following which he was hired by Yale to conduct research in Colombia and Ecuador. He maintains close ties with Central America, including Costa Rica, where he has an ongoing research project dealing with tropical trees. Last year Wheelwright received his fourth National Science Foundation Grant, this one for a joint research project with former Bowdoin student Corey Freeman-Gallant. Wheelwright also recently presented a paper at the North American Ornithological Conference in New Orleans, where he was joined by seven former students, who also presented. He has been invited to seminars in such diverse places as Bolivia, Spain, Botswana, England, and South Africa.
Wheelwright focuses increasingly on ecological issues, and he tries to integrate those issues in his classes here, which include Introductory Biology courses as well as more advanced topics such as Ornithology. While Biology is a demanding major, Wheelwright sees benefits for non-majors as well, stressing that being "ecologically literate" is important.
"There is a lot to learn from plants and animals and the way they have developed," he says. "We face a number of environmental problems, including population growth and the loss of biodiversity." His seemingly relaxed disposition is a bit more on edge now, and one realizes that he has certainly seen the effects of these problems first-hand. "I think a world with less biodiversity will be a fundamentally less satisfying world for everyone."
But for Wheelwright, the best weapon against these problems is awareness, and he hopes to foster a love and understanding for the natural world: "You cannot love the natural world without understanding it, and you cannot understand it without loving it."