The Colgate Scene
January 2002

The mind of a scientist, the heart of a teacher

"Being a professor at a small liberal arts college is what I wanted to do," says Brian Shelley '81, recalling his undergraduate days with a characteristic smile.

And it is exactly what he is doing, initially at Holy Cross for seven years, and now at Hobart and William Smith Colleges, where he is in his first year as assistant professor of biology. The smile remains intact, the enthusiasm that of a sophomore who discovers aquatic ecology and therein the meaning of life, more or less.

Shelley returned to campus three times last year, first to play golf at Seven Oaks, then for his 20th reunion and finally to present a lecture on "The effects of disturbance on mosses and algae in streams" as part of a seminar series in the biology department.

Arriving at Colgate in the late '70s, Shelley already had a love of the outdoors and an appreciation of streams gained in high school lab courses.

"My interest in aquatic organisms was solidified here" through close working relationships with the biology faculty.

"The interaction with professors, that's where students get excited," says Shelley, who did his postgraduate work at Minnesota.

"Students love research. It is an opportunity to view a faculty member almost as a peer."

The hours spent outside the classroom in waders fosters a collegial bond between Shelley and his students.

"They see firsthand the excitement we get out of research, what keeps us interested in science. They learn how to do science and they learn better by doing."


"How does the mind of a scientist work? We make observations. Ask questions. Design a study. Collect data. Come to a conclusion. We call it the scientific method."
The limiting factor, of course, is numbers. Shelley knows the experience can't be offered at huge institutions or even in a classroom with 20 or 30 students.

The learning process for Shelley's chosen students isn't restricted to streams, lakes and other sources of fresh water. He takes his charges to scientific meetings where they can be surrounded by "science geeks and see what turns us on."

What has piqued Shelley's interest continues to evolve. His dissertation was on the decomposition of organic matter in lakes. He spent seven years studying moss in streams and is now turning his attention of the exotic species problem posed by zebra mussels and Eurasian milfoil.

"I have a bunch of questions," says Shelley with a gleam in his eye. He is clearly relishing the prospect of looking for answers as he investigates the non-evolutionary mutualism of the two species.

"The mussels are effective filters that clean the water. The cleaner the water, the more light for plant growth, and the milfoil is a substrate for the mussels."

Talking about the research delineates a process for Shelley.

"How does the mind of a scientist work? We make observations. Ask questions. Design a study. Collect data. Come to a conclusion. We call it the scientific method."

Students need to be engaged. "They have to get excited about the science or the mundane stuff will kill 'em," says Shelley. "Ninety percent of it can be boring -- washing dishes, picking bugs, counting algae. If you realize there is a product, it can be enough."

From mundane (Shelley goes so far as to call it "mindless") work in the lab to research in the always-unexpected natural ecosystems, the professor is committed to helping students learn to think through the inevitable problems that arise. His enthusiasm is unabated from his days as a teaching assistant in Professor of Biology Ron Hoham's introduction to zoology and botany classes more than 20 years ago.

"I hope that I can always come back here," says Brian Shelley as he prepares to give his lecture. "I think of this as my ancestral home. I owe Colgate a lot for guidance and a good time."

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