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A look at STEM from an Emeritus Scientist, Professor, and Administrator

Harold Bibb

Harold Bibb was born and grew up in Centralia, Illinois where he attended public schools. He earned the Bachelor's degree in Biology at Knox College in Galesburg, Illinois before attending graduate school at the University of Iowa where he earned both the Master's and Ph.D. degrees in Developmental Biology. Upon completing his graduate studies, Dr. Bibb held fellowships from the National Institutes of Health for postdoctoral research at the University of Victoria in British Columbia, Canada, and subsequently at Brown University in Providence, Rhode Island. His research has focused on such areas as peripheral influences on the production and loss of nerve cells, and the use of the developing eye as a model system for the study of cell differentiation.
An Honorary Member of the Golden Key International Honour Society, Dr. Bibb retired in 2010 and is now Emeritus Professor of Biological Sciences and Emeritus Associate Dean of the Graduate School at the University of Rhode Island.
Dr. Bibb lives in Kingston, Rhode Island and is married with three children and two grandchildren.

Q: You have worn many hats in your illustrious career. Scientist, Professor, Administrator. Looking back, is there one particular position that you held that you think allowed you to best promote and encourage students in STEM fields, especially students belonging to underrepresented communities?

Bibb: Each of these roles has been very rewarding and each has allowed me to interact with and encourage students from communities that are currently underrepresented in different ways. As a scientist, I've been privileged to work with students in the most direct fashion as a research supervisor for their projects. This allowed me to encourage their efforts, offer advice, and collaborate in their studies in a hands-on manner. This role also permitted me to participate in outreach efforts that bring younger students into the laboratory and have them witness first-hand the excitement of discovery. This makes the whole process less abstract and much more personal. As a professor - though working at a slightly greater distance than is possible in daily interactions in the lab - it was again important to give students a sense of the actual work of scientists in the development of knowledge rather than simply providing a packet of facts. It also made it possible to help them with study habits, with their approach to learning, and importantly, to congratulate them on their work. The encouragement I could offer as an administrator included some of the things mentioned earlier, but that role also gave me the opportunity to help in finding both personal and research support for students, and to help them in navigating the process of their education. It would be difficult for me to choose any one of these as being more important than the others because I feel that they all have value in slightly different ways.

Q: In your experience, what is the recipe for a successful STEM outreach program?

Bibb: It's absolutely necessary to have the participation of faculty members and mentors who are truly committed to the success of the outreach effort and of the students who are part of the program. Having faculty members who are able to meet student where the student is in terms of preparation and experience is a valuable ingredient in the recipe. It must be clear that faculty members in the program are interested and invested in the student's success. This is balanced by maintaining high expectations and letting the student know that you have confidence in their ability to meet those expectations. Helping the student to understand the value of striving for excellence is part of this. It is also necessary to be sensitive to the student's needs if they run into obstacles, and to be ready to help without undermining their feeling of responsibility for their own work. In the process of working with the student, look for opportunities to help build a passion for their work, and be prepared to provide motivation and encouragement if they are having difficulty. The program should be designed to show the value of the outreach effort.

Q: What is the single most important action that we can do as a society to help encourage more people to pursue careers in science, engineering, and math?

Bibb: We have to expand opportunities so that children from all segments of society have access to the type of education and training that would allow them to consider STEM careers. An important first step is for our children to be helped early in life by talented, skilled and dedicated teachers in building a solid foundation in language and mathematics. This gives the student the tools to meaningfully study science. Early childhood education is critical. Stimulating the inherent curiosity of young students is part of this, and the educational process should be one that builds students' confidence that they can be successful in science and math rather than one that discourages them. It's also never too early to have students understand that helping each other is a benefit to all. Finally, students should be made aware of the personal and professional rewards of careers in STEM disciplines, and of the valuable societal contributions that are made through science, engineering, and math.

Q: Would you say today's U.S. college students are more or less prepared in math and science fundamentals compared to when you began as professor?

Bibb: There is a considerable amount of data showing that in general students today are less well prepared than at earlier times in our history. Anecdotes from professorial colleagues support this view. The preparation of too many students prior to entering college has been less demanding, and has left them unable to go on in science and math at the college level. This is obviously not true of all students because some are quite well prepared. However, there is unevenness in preparation in the nation's population, and that unevenness leaves some students unable to enter the pipeline for STEM study.

Q: What in your life motivated you to become a biologist and pursue a career in academia?

Bibb: It was a series of circumstances. I was fortunate to grow up in a home in which education was valued. I lived in a town with a very good educational system and went to schools that had excellent teachers who nurtured and encouraged their students while simultaneously challenging them to reach higher. Looking back on that experience now, I can say that I had extraordinary teachers and mentors at each stage of my education and training. It seems that they were on a mission to get the very best out of each student. They made learning exciting, and when that excitement was paired with a curiosity about the world around me I was set on a path toward science. I have always been attracted to the clarity that comes with solving a math problem, and with the sense of certainty that science provides. I guess that I was drawn to biology because in dealing with life processes it seemed more accessible, and when I began to study developmental biology I was hooked. I am still awed by the beauty of the precision of the processes underlying the production of a new organism.

Getting to know my professors in college greatly influenced my decision to pursue an academic career. I found the freedom that they had in studying those things that they found interesting, in generating new knowledge, in sharing information with students and colleagues, and their collegiality all to be very appealing. I was attracted to the highly individualized way that they were able to do their work, and I could see myself in that sort of career and finding it to be rewarding and very satisfying.

Q: It seems that you have done a lot in your career. What is the next big challenge or adventure for you?

Bibb: I doubt that one single activity will consume my time and energy, and I will remain involved in a number of pursuits. I still enjoy some of the activities that engaged me before retirement. One of these has been working with groups that are doing the valuable and rewarding work of creating and enhancing opportunities for students and faculty members from parts of our population that are currently underrepresented in higher education. I will remain active in doing what I can in support of these groups, and will continue to be available for consultation with other groups that have similar objectives.

I now find the time to do more reading and to read more widely. Retirement also has allowed me to become more deeply involved with local groups that serve the community through the arts, and I look forward to continuing my service on the boards of two organizations that promote and sponsor chamber music performances in our area. I will also continue to serve as a Knox College Trustee.

Finally, and perhaps this is at the top of my list, I have two delightful grandchildren and I will certainly visit them more often and spend more time with them.

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2011 The Innovative Science & Technology Group (ISTGTM)