John Wood, PhD, Ecologist and Professor
- Professor Emeritus, Biology and Environmental Studies, The King’s University
- MSc – Biology, Central Washington State College, Ellensburg, Washington (1977)
- PhD – Entomology and Aquatic Ecology, University of California, Berkeley, California (1988)
- Assistant Professor of Biology, Simpson College, San Francisco, CA, 1983-1989
- Dean, Faculty of Natural Sciences, The King’s University, 2011-2017
- Director of the Environmental Studies Program, The King’s University, 2001-2008
- Academic Dean, The Au Sable Institute of Environmental Studies, 2006 – 2011
Calling Comes and Life Goes for an Emerging Scientist
I grew up on logging clear cut. There was nothing remarkable about that in the 1950’s. Almost everyone in Washington State was living on what was once old growth Douglas fir or western red cedar forest land. This was timber, farming and fishing country and we lived close to the land. It was a magical space to grow up in textured by glaciers, rivers and the sea. Your imagination could run in all directions in the abundance of nature. Our place was up the hill from a lake, but our neighbors were generous. We were always welcome to use the beach or boat. I spent long hours lying on the dock staring at the languid forms of huge largemouth bass. We would block the sun with our face and hands, dip a minnow on our line and hope that one of those monsters would inhale the wriggling bait. And even now, six decades later, I remember racing home in boyish glee with my first big catch.
On that lake I learned both biology and life lessons hand-in hand. The natural rhythms of the year dominated our experience. Swimming, rowing a boat, building and pushing off on a raft these days in a self-taught classroom were filled with ecological principles. Perch, trout, bass and bullheads lie near the top of what we later learned was a food chain. Life and death, seasonal renewal and reproduction all played out in front of us. What, we wondered, is the physics behind those water striding bugs? They skimmed like magic among the pond lilies near shore. And try as we might, why was it so hard to sink them with a rock? On windy days frothy foam would pile up on the shoreline, filled with organic flotsam and human jetsam. And if a steady wind prevailed we would see rank after rank of waves cross the lake, with long parallel lines marking the surface circulation. In Clear Lake, true to its name in those days, I learned to swim on, in and under the waves. Later in graduate school I would learn that the foam was caused by natural algal and plant-based surfactants. And those white lines were Langmuir circulation, and the increasing green algal color was caused by the nutrient enrichment of eutrophication. There too I would discover the names and theoretical details of the myriad other processes first glimpsed here on the water.
“We need men like you in the ministry” he said. I was startled by my pastor’s bold assertion. He was visualizing a future for me that I could barely imagine. “Have you thought about going to North Park College in Chicago?” Sure, I had heard all about it in church, and at summer camp. But that was half a continent away from my small town. And besides, when I asked my dad, he simply said “I don’t think we can afford it. He and mom helpfully pointed out that community college tuition was very low, and I could live at home as well. They had been married on the heels of the Great Depression and knew the value of a dollar, as well as of an education. I was disappointed. I told my pastor I would stay home and perhaps try to go to one of the local Christian colleges in Seattle. At the dinner table the next week dad got my attention and simply said, “About that college. The president called. I think you can go.” Wow! Surprise, shock, delight all mixed in my emotions. It was going to be expensive, and I would need to find a well-paying summer job, but with faith and a little action it would happen. Only later would I learn the financial sacrifice my parents made for my success. And I came to appreciate how challenging it was for them to watch their youngest child board a train for the 2000 mile trip into a new way of living. I am part of the baby boom generation, the first in our family to go to university. I had a clear sense of calling to higher education, even if I did not know exactly what the vocational outcome of my disciplinary study might be in the future.
I am an unlikely scientist. Sure I have always loved the out-of-doors, but many do who never undergo the rigor of mastering a scientific discipline. I came to it slowly, influenced as I look back, by many teachers along the way. Mr. Miller was a riveting biology teacher. And Mr. Jones, our geometry teacher, unlocked the power of Greek puzzle solving with proofs and theorems. Peering at us through double thick glasses that always slid down his nose, his quirky approach to academics was infectious. I began to aspire to go to college. I wanted to have the skills and passion for learning that I saw in these gifted teachers. From them I learned that persistence, and determination would win out over any inadequacy I might feel. Through sports (cross country, wrestling and track) and in boy scouts I learned discipline, hard work and leadership skills that served me well later on. But other subjects were interesting too. Contemporary world problems class was electric, especially the day we heard of the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. In college the civil rights movement, Viet Nam war, and emerging ecological issues all clamoured for our attention. So I walked two pathways in college, one toward the natural sciences and the other backfilling with courses useful for a seminarian. One of the most useful things I did in college was take a summer off to work as a short-term missionary for the Evangelical Covenant Church in Alaska. There I found a way to weave together my two callings.
In the summer of 1967 I gave up my well-paid summer job as a milkman. So the following year I needed to find work. Reading a college magazine I discovered a new approach to the job search called informational interviewing. The steps were laid out by Richard N. Bolles, author of the now widely read career guide,What Color Is Your Parachute?The process is less about looking for a job than it is about building a network. It is more about finding your mission in life, than it is figuring out how much you will be paid. The challenge was to find the one thing that I was already good at doing. Ask myself, what skills did I have and what strengths or talents I excelled at based on my work history. Then go looking for individuals who I could ask more questions about this line of work. This is the networking phase of a career search. As I say to my students, “Don’t ask your best contact for a job. Rather, ask them for a recommendation to contact. The name of someone they know who might be able to help you locate a job in the career field that you desire.” This approach does not put your contact on the spot the way a direct request for a job might. But it gives them time to think about both who they might refer you to, and while doing that determine whether you might actually be suitable for a position for which they can hire. So with this approach in mind I searched for places working with water. A few dry calls later I ended up in the office of our public utility district asking the secretary “Who tests your water?” It was the only leading question I could think of at the time! The answer was direct, “The public health department. Why do you ask?” And after a sputtering “I’m interested in water testing”, she directed me to the head engineer. He gave me a brief tutorial about our water supply system and public safety. Then he also asked, “Why do you ask?” He did not have a job for me then, but called a day later to ask me to take over a study on the local reservoir. It turned out that he created a job for me, based on that brief informational interview. I completed a research report and the company made a major investment in water quality improvement the next year. Today we would call that summer job an internship. It was one that I had created for myself. And it set the path that eventually led to graduate study in aquatic ecology and a career teaching in Christian higher education.
The pathway to graduate school and away from seminary was not a straight one. I have sought out the advice of mentors and pastors over the years. In fact, finding a mentor has been nearly as important as being a mentor has become for me. Even today I look to others in person and in print to be my conversation partners in life.We are strengthened by those we walk with in life the Proverbs say (i.e.27:17). I decided that throughout my education I would remain active in a local congregation. This meant more than just attending services on Sundays, while this was sometimes about all I could manage. But I was determined to stay engaged with my faith community throughout graduate study. In simple terms I did not want to show up after I had my academic credential and say, “Here I am now, ready to serve.” There is something rich about growing your faith life along with the life of the mind. And ultimately that may have shaped my vocational choice as well, drawing me to Christian higher education for a career. I have had the privilege of working for four Christian institutions, two as academic dean. It is a long way from the shores of our little lake to the halls of academe. Now I am savoring the opportunity of writing on challenging topics of life and physical death at the interface of faith and my scientific discipline. It is a long journey that started with a few steps in faith, and continues that way today.
It was highly unlikely that I would have gotten a job with the public utility any other way. At lunch later that summer the shop supervisor asked me, “How did you get this job?” I explained briefly and then he reached into a drawer and pulled out a 2-inch thick stack of summer application forms and dropped them on the desk with a thud. “Smart kid, guess where your application would have been”, he said pointing to the bottom of the pile. That day I learned again the value of informational interviewing. Seeking your life mission always beats seeking a mere job. Visions of a Vocation: Common Grace for the Common Goodby Steven Garber(IVP Books, Downers Grove, 2014) is a great place to learn more about vocation and calling.
Eugene Peterson, author of The Message, tells a related story of searching for conversation partners in The Cornfield (pages 47-57, in: Under the Unpredictable Plant: An Exploration in Vocational Holiness. Wm. B. Eerdmans Publishing Company, Grand Rapids, 1992.