Photography by Taylor Jones

Professor of Biology, holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair

Bachelor of science in biology, Southern Methodist University

Doctorate in biology, University of Coloradoz

If I was not a biology professor, I would be… a wilderness canoeing guide.

No one knows that I… once spent an hour barefoot in a room with two six-foot king cobras on the loose.

The part of college that I enjoyed most was… studying field biology at SMU’s campus outside of Taos, N.M.

My favorite movie is… The Edge, starring Anthony Hopkins and Alec Baldwin, who confront a killer grizzly bear and their own uncertainties while lost in the Alaskan wilderness.

Teaching

Ben Pierce

Professor of Biology, holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair

It comes as no surprise that Ben Pierce developed a deep appreciation for nature and the great outdoors at an early age.

“I have three brothers and, together with my parents, we spent a great deal of time camping, hiking, backpacking and canoeing,” he says. “Since I always enjoyed spending time in and learning about nature, biology came naturally to me. I knew in high school that I wanted to be a biologist.”

After many years of teaching at Baylor University, Pierce jumped at the opportunity to join Southwestern University’s Biology Department in the fall of 2005 as holder of the Lillian Nelson Pratt Chair.

“From my perspective, Southwestern is the pinnacle of undergraduate teaching — the chance to work in an excellent liberal arts environment, with small classes, motivated students and interesting colleagues,” Pierce says.

Pierce’s areas of expertise include population genetics and evolution, but his specialty is the study of amphibians. In particular, Pierce studies the Georgetown salamander, a rare salamander found only in the San Gabriel River drainage around Georgetown. He conducts collaborative research with his students to better understand what limits the distribution of the salamander and what parameters make good salamander habitat.

“I see my research as a natural extension of my teaching,” Pierce says. “Research keeps me current and excited about learning biology. It also provides me with opportunities to spend lots of one-on-one time with students, both in the laboratory and the field.”

Seeing the importance of the San Gabriel River to the Georgetown community, Pierce teamed up with Laura Hobgood-Oster, director of the environmental studies program, and Michael Kamen, associate professor of education, in the spring of 2006 to put together a proposal to the 3M Foundation to fund the San Gabriel River Trail Project. The foundation approved the proposal, and Southwestern received a $50,000 “Vision Grant” that provides funding for students and faculty to conduct research projects and creative work projects that focus on and benefit the San Gabriel River Trail.

“The student-led projects benefit the trail and the local community; students learn leadership skills by interacting with members of the community and the larger academic community gains valuable research and creative works,” Pierce says. “I think one of the most valuable things a student can do is to take his or her academic knowledge and apply it to a real-world problem. Connections to the community make the learning real and help motivate the student — the learning is no longer just an academic exercise but is helping to solve a real problem in the community.”

Pierce says his hope for all Southwestern students is that they develop a sense of their calling in life. “My advice to students is to believe in themselves. I am continually amazed at what great things students can accomplish when they have the courage to step up and try.”

Photography by Taylor Jones

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Bachelor of arts in women’s studies, Simon’s Rock College of Bard

Master of arts in women’s studies, San Francisco State University

Doctorate in sociology, Indiana University

If I was not a sociology professor, I would be… a telepath.

My favorite song is… “I Wish You Peace” by the Kinsey Sicks.

If I could travel anywhere it would be to… Liad, Vorbarr Sultana, or some of the other worlds mentioned in science fiction novels.

The best advice I can give to students is… Don’t underestimate the power of listening.

Sandi Nenga

Assistant Professor of Sociology

Sandi Nenga knew from a young age that the liberal arts environment was made for her. Instead of finishing a traditional high school program, Nenga began attending Simon’s Rock College of Bard at age 16. Simon’s Rock is a liberal arts school where students begin a college program after their sophomore or junior year of high school. Nenga thrived in the independent-minded atmosphere and became the college’s first women’s studies major. Holding an enormous amount of respect for her women’s studies professors, she began her drive to become a professor.

“I really meant to become a women’s studies professor, but along the way, I became an accidental sociologist,” Nenga says. “What I love about sociology is its ability to shift the explanation for social problems away from individual traits and toward an understanding of how policies, institutions, laws and social practices create and exacerbate social problems.”

Nenga hopes that her students will become informed about domestic policies, and develop an appreciation of diversity, a greater understanding of social inequality and an ability to mesh research and social change. To accomplish this, she often has to challenge the comfort level of many of her students. “If you think about the moments where you really learned something, those moments are often characterized by difficult emotions: anger, frustration, discomfort or disappointment. One of the most challenging aspects of teaching is that I have to create a little discomfort for students so that they can learn,” she says.

Nenga teaches courses ranging from the introductory level to the sociology capstone course. “What I love about teaching at Southwestern is that I have the chance to develop long-term relationships with students,” she says. “Although I might make the students uncomfortable in class, I also have the chance to see the ‘payoff’: when students have absorbed the uncomfortable lesson and started thinking about what they can do to alleviate social problems.”

Nenga also enjoys the opportunity to supervise student research, and for the second year in a row, a Southwestern student from Nenga’s capstone course won a national undergraduate sociology paper competition. This year’s winner, Meagan Elliot ’07, credits the countless efforts put in by Nenga for her prize. In recognition of her hard work and immense support of her students, both inside and outside the classroom, Nenga was awarded the 2007 Southwestern University Excellence in Academic Advising Award.

“There aren’t words to describe how honored I was. For me, advising is about helping students think about who they want to become, what they want to do after graduation and how to best prepare for that,” she says. “When I develop a strong relationship with my advisees, my office becomes a haven for students who need it. To have that work recognized made my teacher’s heart melt.”