Iowa Alumni Magazine | December 2004 | Features

Where Ideas Grow Legs

By Jeff Weld

There! One’s opening. Look!” Megan pulled back from the eyepiece and slid the heavy microscope over to her lab partner.

“Oh, I see it,” Neil said as he cupped his hands across the gap between the lens and his brow and steadied himself. “Whoaaa,” he drawled almost reverently. “They’re all starting to pop open, like little eyes. Pop—there goes one. Pop—another! Pop. Pop.”

Megan angled in, wedging her elbow between the bench and Neil’s sternum. “Let’s see.”

photo of a microscope

They grappled over the microscope for a moment, Neil milking one last glimpse through the eyepiece while Megan tilted it by the neck, nearly toppling it. “Oh, nice going, Neil,” she said. “It’s all out of focus.”

She worked the knobs feverishly to restore the view. “Oh, there you are, little peepers,” she cooed. “That’s what I’m going to call them—peepers, not stomals or stromas or whatever you said.”

“Stomates,” corrected Neil. “Or one might say,” speaking now with an articulate but phony British accent, “…stomata, correct, professor?” I winked concurrence.

Neil shifted from the Queen’s English to sounding like Joe Pesci’s character in Goodfellas. “You know, like, ‘Hey, what’s stomata witch you? You got a problem? What’s stomata?’ Man, I crack me up.” Back, now, to Midwestern Neil-speak.

“So, these things have been here all the time and I never even heard of ‘em?” Megan said, acting surprised to learn at age 19 that there were still some secrets under the sun. “Well, maybe I’ve heard of ‘em, but I know I’ve never seen ‘em. What’s this plant called again?”

Tradescantia pallida, I told her, or Wandering Jew.

“Do other leaves have these…peepers?”

“Stomata!” Neil corrected her, shoulders shrugged and palms in the air, Goodfellas style.

They do, I said, but usually the pigments don’t contrast so nicely as on this plant. A simple technique is needed, involving nail polish and scotch tape, to peel away the surface layer of most leaves so that the stomates can be viewed under a microscope. Would they like to try it on some leaves from outside?

By week’s end, Megan and Neil had completed their research study on stomates of plants behind our building. Their Friday presentation was filled with data—stomate densities on the upper and lower surfaces of leaves from short (grass), medium (a berry bush), and tall (an oak tree) plants, along with explanations of the role of stomates in photosynthesis and how natural selection shaped the distribution of these “peepers.”

Theirs was followed by talks on stem transport, hormones and growth, flower formation, pigment separation, and more. When Megan hoisted her backpack to head back up the hill for a humanities class, she paused at the door and said to me, “I will never look at a plant the same again.” And I thought to myself, this job rocks.

The teaching lab is an amazing place. Privileged, really. Here, spongy young minds congregate three times a week, sans video games, cell phones, headphones, or MTV. With brains still plastic, seeming to unfurl as we go, the learning is enviably effortless.

And they do want to learn, contrary to my jaded Uncle Leo who chides “kids these days” for being lazy, selfish, and disrespectful, much as his own uncle probably did. They just need it on their terms, like we all do—something new, interesting, and which they can figure out for themselves with just a bit of hand-holding.

Megan is majoring in communications. She wants to be an anchorwoman. Neil is in elementary education. This is their last drink at the science trough before we turn them loose to navigate the 21st century complexities of communication, transportation, healthcare, environmental preservation, war and peace, and—for heaven’s sake—parenthood. Quite a sobering responsibility for a teacher, but surely instilling a bit of excitement and confidence will go a long way in readying them for the future.

“Holy moly, they’re packed in like sardines!”

closeup photo of maggots

Kent, a sophomore business major major, confesses to me that every time he comes down to the lab for class, something freaks him out. This time it’s husk fly larvae (maggots) busting out of a walnut.

“Is this normal?” Sure.

“Can’t be good for the nuts or the trees for that matter. What do, like, walnut farms do about it?” Pesticides such as malathion take care of it, I say, but there are trade-offs in using it, so perhaps Kent might want to develop a costs-benefits analysis of pesticide use in agriculture.

By Friday, we hear all about Kent’s study, along with an exposé on water fleas subjected to nicotine, the Asian ladybug invasion, wood-eating microbes of the termite gut, and so much more.

It’s a heady experience in the biology lab. Vistas are expanded, ah-ha moments abound, and lives are changed. They had arrived in early autumn bedecked in gleaming new shoes and neatly pasted hair, resigned to endure the campus requirement of one last life science class as if showing up for a dental appointment. Most suffer from eco-phobia, a term coined by David Sobel to mean a fear of nature borne of isolation from it.

But by the second week they’ve diagnosed a creek’s health, catalogued a prairie community, come to know a crawdad spider quite well, changed shoes, and relinquished to the wind their hairstyles. “Eeeewww” has gradually evolved to “oooooooh.”

A former student, Kelly, chased me down the steps of our arena after the university basketball team pummeled a conference rival. She wanted to tell me that she still has the vial of DNA that we’d extracted from a cow’s liver. Her roommates think it’s gross, but Kelly refuses to throw it out. She thanked me for a great class. The pleasure was mine, I say. And it was.

Ideas grow legs here. Abstractions are rendered palpable. In the teaching lab, curiosity blooms in people who didn’t know they have the gift.