Photograph by Jamie Betts

I was born while my parents were in high school. That was during the Vietnam War, so my dad got drafted. While he was at war, a drunk driver ran my mom and me off the road, and my mom was killed. My dad came home with many problems after the war. It was not an easy childhood, but I loved school. I had teachers that cultivated my love of learning. While my dad and stepmom hadn’t been to college, my dad always said, “You can be anything you want to be.”

My first chemistry test, I got a 27, the lowest grade in the class. But it never occurred to me to quit. I just thought, “I have to figure out how to do better.” I was lucky that I wasn’t afraid to ask for help, maybe because I had been on my own for a while and knew you had to ask.

There are moments when you realize that you’ve figured something out that no one else in the world knows. During my post-doc research, a whole field emerged called evolutionary developmental biology when scientists learned that genes slightly change over time. My first project was determining whether sponges have the gene that leads to eye formation. I collaborated with one of the discoverers of the gene in fruit flies; we put the sponge gene into fruit flies, and it could rescue their eye if they had a mutated eye.

I thought I would work for a biotech or genome company or work at a medical school doing research. Malcolm, my spouse, kind of prodded me and said, “I think you’re a good teacher.”

In my dream world, we wouldn’t have departments; we would work on real-world problems from different disciplines. It matters to me who gets to do science. I’m passionate about identifying the best pedagogies for including the most students. I have never encountered a student who can’t do science or can’t do math. Never.

Every day, I think about where I got my joy today. I have three kids and a wonderful spouse; I get a lot from them. But in my vocation, it’s the students. I can’t tell you the joy it brings me to see them engaged and empowered to do research on their own and to think and share with their colleagues.