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Learning Biology in Natural Context

A speech presented by Alexandra Webster ’08 during the dedication of the Ada and Archibald MacLeish Field Station, May 3.

Thank you. I am so happy to be here today and see the dedication of this site for student research, although it does make me feel like I jumped the gun a little bit. But in any case, I am really happy just to get one more day out here.

In my four years at Smith studying biology and environmental science, I have had fantastic opportunities to get hands-on experience with ecological research in the field. I was incredibly lucky to have spent my summers assisting research in the forests and rivers of California and Washington, and even gone so far as Tanzania to study the tropical forests there in my junior year. But most recently it has been so good to come back to Smith and be able to do my honors thesis in ecohydrology right here in the forest behind us. All of my field experiences have not only taught me more about scientific investigation and the natural world than all my classroom studies combined, but have also been essential to inspiring my passion to learn and in reminding me how to stay grounded throughout all the craziness of the defining years of my life.

For these reasons, I came back to Smith as a senior, determined to do more with my last year than sit in classrooms and write reports about abstract concepts. Why, I asked myself and my professors, should I have to wait for the summer to ask my own questions and get my hands dirty when I know that this is how I learn best? I remember the day last September that I sat with my adviser in his office and he mentioned this property and the plans to develop it for student research. Although he warned that there was little infrastructure to facilitate research here yet, I jumped on the chance to be one of the first.

It was a fateful decision and it defined my senior year. Tromping through the underbrush, taking notes under the shelter of a tree in a rainstorm, looking up from my measurements to see a bear wandering among the trees—this is how to learn not just about ecology, but about your place in the world.

Although I greatly appreciate the efforts of all my professors at Smith, I admit that—in this last year at least—I have been the most dedicated student to these woods. They  taught me many lessons. It was immediately obvious when I left the classroom and spent time in these woods that the narrow disciplines we peg ourselves to have very little application to how forests really work. I am a biology student, but in order to study how water comes into this forest, as I did for my thesis, I worked with faculty and students from the engineering, biology, geology, and statistics departments at Smith, as well as drawing upon the resources of the University of Massachusetts, as the Five College consortium allows me to do.,

I anticipate that this field station will allow students, as it allowed me, to see how what they learn in their varied liberal arts education at Smith weaves together in the real world. These connections, both the conceptual ones among disciplines, and the physical ones among students and faculty of various departments, are absolutely essential to understanding, living, and working in the real world, especially conducting scientific research.

Smith is a place for students to think about big ideas, but for me, and I think for many students, thinking only about big ideas all the time abstracted my life and my sense of purpose. “Feeling lost” is a common theme among students in higher education, and it is exacerbated when students have no sense of place in the area where they move to attend school. Being from California, I felt profoundly disconnected from the physical place of Smith—I spent my first three years knowing nothing about the ecology, history, or industry of the Pioneer Valley. Studying these woods, talking to the neighbors of the property, buying vegetables from the farm stand down the road, gave me the sense of place that I had lacked, contextualized what I was learning every day, and profoundly deepened my appreciation of New England. I would have never, before working here, considered staying in New England after graduation. As it is, I have been thrilled to take a research assistantship in the forest ecology lab at nearby Boston University.

So, I really want to thank Smith and everyone I worked with for allowing me to get to know these woods. I truly hope that facilitating research here will give future students access to all of the lessons about life and learning that are present here. It is a great and inexhaustible resource, and I wish them all the best of luck.

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