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Science in Focus: Dorothy Boorse

What I Wish I Had Known, Part 2

How the natural world sneaks into the soul.

I was going, I thought, to be a missionary doctor to India. That dream lasted from first grade through the middle of my college years. It lasted through library books on the human body, school projects on India, courses in Anatomy and Physiology. It lasted through working as a nurse's aide, through seeing my first patient die, through calculus, through chemistry. I loved the human body, loved people, loved to help, and loved God.

I did not know, then, how the natural world could sneak into the soul. Watching lines of ants, day-dreaming about the hollow bones of birds, peering at mounds of moss, dissecting the woodchuck caught in the garden—who knew how all this would form me? My father's passion for science, my mother's for literature, both were there as well. My childhood of pets and gardens blossomed into a passion for care of the natural world.

In college, after a long dark period of questioning, after my faith and sense that the world had any meaning at all had been doubted, shaken, and revived again, I awoke one summer sure that medicine was not my call. In a moment of wisdom, I asked the question, "what do I do with my time when I am doing what I love?" The answers: read, write, walk around looking at things, wonder about dragonflies, peer at tadpoles, study, tell people cool things about the living world, look things up.

I wish I had known long before that studying ecology was something that would better the world. I wish I had known what a need there was for people to pour themselves and their efforts into conservation, environmental science, ecology, and field biology. One summer I had an internship working on a research project in salt marshes, and I took courses at AuSable Institute of Environmental Science. Then I met wonderful people whose calling was to inspire, motivate, and train the next generation to study science and care for creation. Now I am that person.

I did not know how collaborative science is, how mathematical it is, or how messy and iterative it can be. Ecology in particular is extremely integrative, and my own broad background has helped me there. I wish I had known that science is more than natural curiosity, more than natural history. It takes a process to learn something new. That process is like learning to play the piano: you practice and practice. You try and fail, try and fail, and then perhaps succeed after trials. I wish I had known how much of science is just persevering.

Back in the day, like many students, I thought science was done by individuals, who had genius ideas, or did not, and invented things in a lab all by themselves. Nowadays, science involves groups of people working together, perhaps utilizing giant computer models or satellite images, and addressing questions with global consequences. Nevertheless, despite that misunderstanding of the nature of science, I knew that science mattered. It still does, even more as we face significant environmental crises and a polarized society. The study of this natural world is a great and joyous undertaking, and there is a place for each of us in science—as a scientist, teacher, writer, or simply an informed citizen.

Dorothy Boorse is professor of biology at Gordon College.

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