By Deborah A. Gagnon
On October 26, Wells College concluded a memorable visit with ΦBK Visiting Scholar Shuhai Xiao. Xiao was a wonderfully warm and approachable scholar. He shared his knowledge and expertise in a number of venues, including two classroom visits (Ecology & Evolution and Environmental Science I); as a speaker in our weekly Sustainability Lecture Series in which he skillfully connected his scholarly work to the issue of environmental sustainability; at the public lecture which was well attended by the members of the Wells community as well as from the local Village of Aurora community; over breakfasts, lunches, and dinners with students and faculty; and finally, at an off campus fossil hunt that brought Xiao and students into the field together to hunt for fossils from the Devonian era, which dominates the upstate New York geographical landscape.
During the fossil hunt, Xiao and students could be seen bending over fossil specimens the students brought to him from the field, as he identified them and described their history. He did a wonderful job demonstrating the sleuthing and inferential work that goes into science generally and paleontology specifically. None of us will ever look at the slight ridges, bumps, and depressions in rocks the same way again: We now know that these have a story to tell about, for instance, how shallow or deep the sea at the time was, how turbulent it was, and in what direction the water flowed. Everyone came home with several prized Devonian fossil specimens including brachiopods, crinoids, and “lucky stones” (small, smoothed stones with a hole bored in the middle – evidence of exoskeleton development during this period – that can be found along the shores of certain Finger Lakes), and inspired by the science and possibilities of paleontology. One student was overheard excitedly saying to another as they departed the van, “I am so happy I decided to go on this trip!”
Xiao’s visit reminded me of other experiences I’ve had in which learning about a particular aspect of the natural world caused me to look at it more closely and appreciate details that previously had been completely lost to me simply because I didn’t know what to look for, or worse, wasn’t even looking. After learning a bit about Xiao’s area of interest in the natural world – fossils – I will never take a walk along a stream bed or the side of the lake without looking more closely at the rocks underfoot and seeing in them something never recognized or noticed before. There is a richness in the landscape, in the rocks, in the flora, and in the fauna that becomes open to awareness once you know a little something about the signs and clues to look for, that eventually yield a story. I had the same appreciation and recognition of this ‘richness’ after taking a spring ornithology class at Cornell a few years back. Suddenly I seemed to notice birds everywhere, taking note of their actions, behaviors, where in the tree they were, what time of year it was, their calls and songs and flight patterns — the class opened up a whole world to me that had always been there but I never really noticed, certainly not with as much sensory and perceptual awareness or appreciation. I experienced the same phenomenon when I learned a bit about animal prints and other evidential clues that animals leave behind. A whole story about who, what, where, when, and why suddenly unfolds. For the gift of deeper appreciation and awareness of the natural world, if for no other (although there were plenty of others!), Xiao's visit to our campus was invaluable to the students, faculty, and visitors who learned something about the fossil record and the clues that fossils provide to the earth's geological story.
Xiao epitomizes the kind of scholar that ΦBK’s Visiting Scholar Program envisions: A highly regarded and productive scholar in his field who also knows how to make a complex science accessible and relevant to his audience without dispensing with the sophistication of the science. Xiao was eager and willing to share not only his expertise but also his experiences in the field with us (we were treated to some very interesting tales from Siberia, for instance), which painted an intriguing, adventurous, and exciting picture of his field. Moreover, he impressed upon all of us why the lessons from the earth's past are important ones for us to learn and understand: Lessons from the past can help us build a more sustainable future.
We were very happy to host Xiao and are very grateful to the Visiting Scholar Program for once again giving our ΦBK chapter the opportunity to share this level of scholarship and the excitement of scientific discovery with our undergraduate students and others at Wells College. Xiao’s passion for his field of study has infected us — you could even say that the fossil ‘bug’ has bit at Wells College!
Deborah A. Gagnon (ΦBK, SUNY at Buffalo, 1986) is a professor of psychology at Wells College and president of the Xi of New York Chapter of Phi Beta Kappa at Wells.