Tuesday, June 28, 2005

The spirit of science

Yesterday was one of those days that make me realize why I love science.

First, a bit of background. I'm teaching a field course this summer, wherein the students will be identifying and collecting samples of all the non-vertebrate macroorganisms at a field site. Most of the students have been preparing for this course for the past few months by coming to voluntary meetings to help plan the trip. Just last week one of my students left me a note saying that she had arranged a tour of a local herbarium. I hadn't asked her to do that; she just went out and did it on her own, and as a result, yesterday I spent all day working with the curator of the herbarium.

Before going to the herbarium, we knew basically nothing about collecting plants (my campus no longer has a plant-collecting botanist on staff), and the student I was with hadn't even had an official botany class. In other words, we were complete novices, and it showed.

The museum curator didn't care about our lack of knowledge; he sat down with us and walked through how to collect and press plants, gave us advice on building our own presses, demonstrated their custom-built database system for logging plant specimens, and showed us a number of specimens. But his help didn't end there; after he and his staff took us out to lunch, he dug through his library to find some references that would be useful to us on our trip, and he loaned them to us for the next few months.

Keep in mind, this was the first time we'd ever met, our campuses have no official ties, and he'd only talked to my students a time or two before today. But he didn't care; he just wanted to help us prepare for our field work and learn how to collect plants, sharing his copious enthusiasm along the way. He's a great example of a true scientist: selfless, and so excited about what he does that he'll take a day sharing it with people he doesn't even know.

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