25 April 2010

Larry Wiseman is my hero

Posted by Callan Bentley


I have many heroes, but the one I would like to pay tribute to today is Larry Wiseman, my mentor through my undergraduate years at William & Mary and beyond. Now, Larry is a biologist, not a geologist — but he probably did more to frame my life’s work than any other individual.

At William & Mary, Larry was chair of the biology department, and taught the first semester intro course for bio majors: focused on cells, development, and genetics. (A second semester course, taught by Bruce Grant, would focus on organisms, ecology, and evolution.) Larry’s teaching style really resonated with me: it was very visual, full of analogies and clever turns of phrase. His test questions seemed perfectly attuned to my brain’s style of thinking: they tested not just content, but common sense. I liked this professor: he thought like me!

That first semester, I got involved with the Biology Club, ready to go off and help with campus litter pickups, and monitoring of beaches where piping plovers and least terns (two endangered species of birds) were nesting. I also started writing and cartooning for the Niche, the biology department newsletter. Larry supervised that operation too, and encouraged my wacky re-imagining of the Niche‘s mascots, two lab mice [one example here].

In my second semester as a freshman, Larry waived some pre-requisites and allowed me to take his senior-level Developmental Biology course. This too was an amazing educational experience. It was a wild course: we spent time thinking about the weird stuff that results when salamander limbs are rotated 180° and regrafted to their arms (3 arms sprout from the former elbow), about gastrulation (a fist pushing through a beach ball; the most important event in your life), and about apoptosis (pre-programmed cell death; the reason you have fingers instead of a big paddle). Larry wasn’t afraid to tackle the deeper meaning of developmental biology, either: he asked us at what point the soul emerged in a developing embryo. Was it at conception? Well, experiments show that a young embryo can be physically divided in two, and each half will go on to mature into a fully-formed individual. Do those two individuals have half a soul apiece, or do they share one soul? The reverse can also be seen: two embryos’ cells can merge, and they grow into one individual. Does that individual have two souls? I loved this stuff: I ate it up.

Eventually, my path led me to geology as a major, but Larry and I continued our mentor/mentee relationship. We would meet for coffee at Prince George Espresso about once a month, and talk life, academics, literature, and art. I credit Larry for my interest in the Belgian surrealist René Magritte, for instance. Another time, when I was mentioning my budding interest in geology, he recommended I try reading this guy named John McPhee. [Yes, a biologist pointed me to McPhee, not a geologist!] Perhaps most importantly, one day he took a sip of coffee and told me, “You have to read Desert Solitaire by Edward Abbey.” I checked it out of the Williamsburg Library and devoured it. It was the best book I had ever read, and it probably still is.

These coffeeshop conversations, as well as occasional walks we took in Colonial Williamsburg, were as important as any formal academic learning experience I had in college. Larry’s willingness to discuss big issues with me really helped sculpt my intellect. I am who I am in no small part due to those dialogues.

When it came time to graduate and move on, I wasn’t sure what I was going to do next. While some were pushing me towards graduate school, and others suggested job experience in geology, Larry said “I think you should get a used Subaru and buy an easel and some paints and move out to the southwest for three or four months and just make art!” I was astonished that a professor would suggest something so … nonacademic, so non-career-oriented. It made me trust him. This guy’s got a proper perspective, I thought.

A couple years after I had graduated (and yes, roamed around out west), I went back to visit Williamsburg, and happened to find Larry taking a gaggle of students out to lunch, facilitating similar discussions with them, nurturing the next generation of young minds. It made me happy to see.

Larry retired a few years back, to much fanfare. At that time, he had probably taught more William & Mary students than any other professor in the history of the College, and the students thought quite highly of him. They voted him faculty marshal, and threw a great party for him on the occasion of his last lecture. In his retirement, Larry and his wife Nancy bought a place in Fort Collins, Colorado, where they are pursuing a new project melding their interests in birds, native Americans, and art: Bird Rock Art. They are documenting the appearance of bird images in Indian petroglyphs and pictographs, and enjoying life on the Rocky Mountain Front. The summer before last, I stopped in and stayed a couple nights there on my way to and from Montana.

This man is responsible for guiding me through the most formative period in my intellectual life, and I’m eternally grateful for his time, attention, and wisdom. Because he helped me develop into who I am, Larry Wiseman is my hero.