Dr. Bill Grant doesn’t have any pictures from middle school, but he did save his senior yearbook and some assorted photos from his childhood home. This interview is special for many reasons, but particularly for its timing. On July 1st, 2014 Dr. Grant celebrated his 40 year anniversary as a member of the North Carolina State University faculty. During his interview, we talked about much more than middle school, especially how his career has been shaped by special research opportunities as a high school student and his love of teaching. I was delighted to have found a kindred spirit on campus — Dr. Grant revealed that he would use his superpower to do a science demonstration for his students.
Lea: We’re thinking about your middle school self – between the ages of 10 and 14 – and just taking a nice walk down memory lane.
Bill: It’s a long walk!
We’ll start by setting the scene: so tell me where you were and what things were like when you were in middle school.
They didn’t call it “middle school” back then. We had elementary school that went from first through seventh grade. We had the content of middle school, but the structure was different. So then we went to high school starting in eighth grade. That was in Marion County, South Carolina. My elementary school was in a rural community called Zion and in eighth grade we went to Palmetto High School. It was a small school in a small town — there were only 58 students in my graduating class. We had the usual list of courses that people take in those grades — I enjoyed all of them.
At the end of my sophomore year I had an opportunity to go to Knoxville College. The National Science Foundation had a summer program for gifted students where we spent eight weeks at Knoxville College. I studied biology. There were about 60 of us and some were in biology with a math, others were in chemistry and math, and the others physics and math. And of course we had research projects to do. I hadn’t been engaged in a research project before, so that exposure at the college level with college professors teaching those courses — that really was of great interest to me. At the end, when I finished high school and applied for college and had to write down what major I wanted, I selected biology because of that additional exposure. So I can’t say enough to students about the importance of those experiences.
I had a similar experience later on — I went to Livingstone College in Salisbury, North Carolina. I had a chance to go back to Tennessee during my college years — this time it was at Oak Ridge National Laboratory — where at that time Union Carbide operated that facility for the Atomic Energy Commission. So they had a biology division, a chemistry division and a physics division. I was in biology, in a group called “mammalian recovery,” where they were looking at various kinds of factors associated with recovery from radiation. I worked with Don Swarzendruber who used electron microscopy techniques; he had gone to the University of Iowa and studied there with a famous cytologist named H.W. Beames. That first summer, I worked with him to learn some beginning techniques in electron microscopy: how to prepare the tissues, thin sectioning with a glass knife (he didn’t let me use the diamond knife!). That was a great experience — I was able to go back a second time the next summer as well. I even used the techniques I learned there in my earlier research here. Those experiential opportunities were so important.
I applied to the University of Iowa for graduate school — the Danforth Foundation had fellowships for people interested in science who also had a particular interest in teaching. They wanted people who were interested making students’ interactions with science a really pleasant experience for them. The only stipulation was that you had to be interested in doing that for five years — I’ve sure done it for more than five years!
So I enrolled at the University of Iowa, but then later transferred to NC State. I kept my cell biology emphasis and finished my Master’s and Ph.D. degrees here.
All of these years that I’ve been teaching, I always emphasize to students the value of getting that research experience. Of course you learn a lot in the regular courses with the labs, but to get into research, it’s just a better experience. You’re there for a period of time — you get to make some mistakes, you confer with people, and it’s just a different experience. It’s more meaningful and more memorable in terms of the processes and the concepts that are learned and applied.
Sorry about the long-winded answer!
All of these years that I’ve been teaching, I always emphasize to students the value of getting that research experience.
No, that’s great — this way we know where you’re coming from! What really got you into science? What was it about science that made you choose those paths to take advantage of those opportunities when you were younger?
I think that first experience at Knoxville where I had an opportunity to be exposed to research. And it wasn’t anything high-powered for a high school student, but it was just being in the lab and thinking about what scientists do. And thinking I could really enjoy this. I’ve enjoyed this and it could be a nice career for me to look at for the long term. So when it came time to apply to college, it wasn’t very difficult to make that choice. I haven’t regretted it; it’s been good over the years.
What are some of the things that you saw, maybe some specific examples, that made you think I could do this, I could see myself doing this? Was it just the feeling it gave you?
Yes, the feeling and the variety of experiences, the experiments that we read about and some of the things that we did. We went on field trips — it was really action-packed. I had not been to Oak Ridge National Lab at the time, but we actually went there when I did the summer program in high school. I saw a computer called O.R.A.C.L.E. which stood for Oak Ridge Automatic Computer and Logical Engine. It had vacuum tubes in it and it was HUGE. Close to the size of this room. [Bill gestures to his large office with walls lined with large-scale art that his son has created.] That was the O.R.A.C.L.E. — I’m sure that folks’ cell phones can give O.R.A.C.L.E. a run for its money now! [laughs] But you have to start somewhere.
I have to say that was different from anything I had been exposed to considering my background. I grew up in a rural, agricultural area in South Carolina. I had been working in cotton and tobacco fields, working in the tobacco packhouse and all that… so that was totally different than anything I had ever even known about. I think it’s important that we provide opportunities where students get exposure to what’s available. We do that now at NC State with various summer programs and groups that we bring in, so they know they have the potential and the ability, but they might not realize it fully. We can show them what’s available. The students get to see the science close-up and first-hand and become aware of their potential. Science isn’t just something to look at from afar, but something that they can be involved in. Those research experiences can be life-changing for students.
I had been working in cotton and tobacco fields, working in the tobacco packhouse and all that… so that was totally different than anything I had ever even known about. I think it’s important that we provide opportunities where students get exposure to what’s available.
Absolutely. Having that experience yourself, and knowing how powerful that summer session was for you, you don’t know what experience you could potentially provide for a student that would be the thing that, in 40 or 50 years, someone is saying, “I went and spent a summer doing this thing and that’s why I’m this amazing scientist I am today.” That’s a really cool thing to be a part of.
It really is. You don’t know how many students you’re reaching or what kind of effect you’re having on them. I see that in my regular courses, too. And I’ve seen that over the years. Incidentally, July 1 will mark 40 years of my being on the faculty here at NC State. I was at one of the SUNY branches, the State University of New York, at Old Westbury, and then later came here. I hear from students and they come by and they tell me about what kind of impact that working with me has had — and sometimes it’s students that you expected and you’ve seen their development, but sometimes — and what’s gratifying – is that there are some students that will talk about what benefit they derived and I think Well, I didn’t realize I was having that kind of impact. They never said anything that made me think that, but that’s rewarding as well.
When you were in middle school, did you have any adult role models that you tried to emulate who you could point to now as the person that influenced you?
I had several; not particularly one in biology, as you might think either. I think the one that was the most influential was my math teacher — Mr. James McClain — especially in terms of the precision that was involved and the techniques and the thought process in doing mathematics. And of course that carries into other areas, fortunately. Then I had a really great experience with literature and poetry as well. I think back to that. I’m not going into my description of the poetry, and all that, but folks have asked me. One year I got asked late notice to fill-in as emcee for the December graduation. I did and for my remarks I concluded with a short poem by Henry van Dyke. Our department chair liked it and requested that I read the poem for subsequent graduation ceremonies. I just like the imagery and the language — I enjoy it. I enjoyed all my subjects, really, not equally well, but I enjoyed them. I liked social sciences and natural science. The longer one lives, one can, if one is observant, see the relationships and interrelationships between those various disciplines — that they’re not just separate fields. Sometimes students don’t think that, and I can’t blame them, because they just haven’t thought about it that way. Unfortunately sometimes as teachers we do that, too. We tend to fragment the knowledge into different places.
We have separate classrooms!
Right, and when you leave one classroom, Well, that’s over there, and now I’m over here [He gestures to different spaces around him as if they are compartments in a cabinet] and there’s no relationship. That’s what you’re trying to do with Students Discover is get the word out and have folks experience science and its relationship to all these other areas and the nice thing about it is that you do it in such a way that it’s unobtrusive, it’s natural as it should be, and it’s enjoyable. I’ve been reading Your Wild Life — I see it’s two words — I like poetry and how you use words. Ten thousand teachers. That’s where we get our foundation, and unfortunately teachers aren’t appreciated as much as they should be and not rewarded as much as they should be.
Tell me about what your parents wanted you to be when you grew up and what did they do? Did they ever imagine that you would become a scientist?
They didn’t go that far in terms of trying to lay out a path for me. They had not gone to college and had not completed high school, but they really valued education. My dad worked for the state highway department and my mother was a homemaker. There were some jobs around that she would do seasonally. For example, once a year she would work for a time for the Imperial Tobacco Company. They ran a tobacco factory that processed tobacco immediately after the “curing” — they would open up in the late summer to early fall and process the tobacco and then ship it off to another place. We would work and help farmers on a day-by-day basis. Because we weren’t sharecroppers, they never kept us from school. Some of the kids who were children of sharecroppers needed to do that because the people who owned the land impressed upon them that they needed to do that. But we were fortunate, blessed, that we didn’t have that hanging over us, so to speak.
My parents recognized the value of education and so they encouraged us. I had two brothers, one of them is deceased now, but we all finished and my older brother was one of the first African American people in our community to go to college, and the first one in our extended family. They left it up to each of their three boys — college was our decision. I think that’s good because even now I see parents sometimes who tell their students what they’re going to do. It’s like that story they tell about the lady walking with her two grandsons and someone says, “Oh, what cute boys! How old are they?” and she says, “The doctor is six and the lawyer is four.” [laughs] So my parents didn’t do that, they just encouraged us to do our best. One brother went to undergrad and studied elementary education and became an elementary school teacher. The other one was a chemistry major with a minor in math and did a lot of different things and eventually went into teaching and taught math. A lot of teachers in my family. And my wife — she retired 10 years ago after 31 years of teaching eighth grade social studies. I’ve always had a lot of encouragement.
Some of the kids who were children of sharecroppers needed to do that because the people who owned the land impressed upon them that they needed to do that. But we were fortunate, blessed, that we didn’t have that hanging over us, so to speak.
Did you feel like you were the only person like yourself? Like you were the only person who was into science? Were your peers just as gung ho?
Some of them were — there were a good number of them who were. I think folks should recognize that sometimes we have opportunities that other folks don’t have. There’s a responsibility to help others whenever we get an opportunity to reach out and help someone. There were some really sharp kids in my school. One guy named Hiawatha Legette. I think about him quite a bit in the area of math. I don’t think he went to college, but in high school he was really good. The teacher would pose a problem or ask about some computation and he could do a lot of that in his head, mentally. I could work it out, and do it, but I always like to write it down. She would ask how he got the answer and he would describe the process and later we learned about associative and distributive properties and that’s what he was already using. There were a lot of people who were really sharp but just didn’t have the same opportunities that I did. The teachers were very astute — they had methods that I didn’t learn what they were called until later. They would use those of us who really grasped concepts to help teach the other students. Of course we do that here now. I enjoyed that, too because that was a way of helping someone else understand.
Do you think that experience led you to your love of teaching?
That might have! I’ve thought about that from time to time. That might have. Because it is, as you know, a great feeling when the proverbial lights come on and they say, “Oh, I see!” We have that kind of challenge. I used to teach anatomy and physiology and for a long time I did comparative vertebrate anatomy and zoology. The last several years I’ve been doing Bio 181 (Introductory Biology: Ecology, Evolution, and Biodiversity) and Bio 183 (Introductory Biology: Cellular and Molecular Biology). The same kind of thing occurs there with 240 students in the fall and maybe a little under 200 in 183 in the spring. There’s a challenge because you want to reach all those folks. There are a lot of obstacles and pitfalls with a class of that size. As you know with all the different learning styles, holding their attention can be a challenge. You’d like to be able to work with them one-on-one or in groups of 5 or 10, but that’s not practical. What techniques can you employ to really reach more students? We have workshops and use technology in order to help, but that’s always the challenge. Some of my friends who are not in teaching say, “You’ve been teaching that course for 15 years, there’s nothing new in there, how do you do it year after year?” I always say that they’re new students and I’m always looking for ways to make it exciting for them. That part is new.
You know you have an excited and quality educator when they’re constantly adapting their classes to their new students. Especially with new technology and if your course has an online component or a lab, you can make it a little more personal.
Even in lecture my students know I’m going to ask them to give me their name and what town they’re from before they ask a question or speak up in class. Sometimes they’ll say it automatically before starting their questions. But that’s the way I have review sessions and that way we can get into some really good discussions.
When I was in college, they were remodeling a building, and we asked them if we could have the blackboards. At that time they were real slate, and they said we could take it. So we took that back to the dorm and we kept it behind the door when we weren’t using it. Otherwise there would be a group of us working on math problems on the board and everybody could see what was going on. We did that with our study groups, that was another opportunity to share knowledge. When you have to verbalize something and teach it to somebody else, it really becomes a part of you and it’s meaningful. Those who were more familiar with it benefited from it too, so it wasn’t one-sided thing.
If you were to go back and talk to your middle school self and give yourself some advice, what would you say?
At that time I hadn’t gotten to chemistry yet, but that might be a seed to plant. First of all to say, “Continue to work, and work hard.” Because I did OK in school, I liked my subjects, I’d tell myself to continue doing that. And, “When you get to chemistry, take as much of it as possible and be particularly careful to get as much as you can from that.” There’s so much interaction, all of life itself is chemical. It’s based on chemistry. When you understand those chemical mechanisms you’ll understand those life processes a whole lot better.
There’s so much interaction, all of life itself is chemical. It’s based on chemistry. When you understand those chemical mechanisms you’ll understand those life processes a whole lot better.
How many of your discoveries or opportunities have been due to chance?[I can hear the clock ticking loudly.] I think it would be hard to quantify that in terms of percentage just in general. It is good to think broadly and explore a lot of things. This process has a way of leading you sometimes in directions that you would not expect. You have to have an open mind and let the process continue. And you can come up with a lot of things that you did not envision or expect as a result of that. You and your colleagues are doing that. There are so many different opportunities. With bugs and microorganisms and fungi and all of those — that takes a lot of organization as well, but as you go in all of those different directions and you get those 10,000 teachers and all those students working on something that interests them and you have it well-coordinated — when you have all of that, there’s no limit to the benefits and the knowledge that will accrue from that. It’s already started, but it’s going to be even greater. Keep going in that direction.
It’s exciting to think about the process of citizen science. You can have a scientist going around for their entire career sampling the planet. In a weekend you could have a group of citizens do the same thing and you can keep asking more and more questions. It’s invigorating as a scientist and educator.
It’s wonderful, it really is. I learned something this morning watching The Weather Channel. They were talking about the geophysicists from Indiana and they were talking about the fact that there was an ocean of water under the Earth that’s 400 miles down — it’s not liquid, but hydroxyl ions, but somehow that store of water is in communication with the higher layers. I want to go in and find out more about how that works. They were thinking, “Could this be a possible source of water?” Some might think that’s outside of biology, but not really when you think about how all life originated in water and we’re a large percentage water.
I’m excited about being in a place like this where you can continue to learn and think forever.
Did you play outside when you were younger?
Yes, I did — every day. Running, ball games… when I was in school we did projects like collecting animals and leaves. I was out in the rural area so I was outside quite a lot.
I always ask a hard question after I ask that question… and you don’t have to answer me. Have you ever had a professional crisis or not wanted to continue in science?
Well, no, not in terms of the things that I have been involved in in science. I’ve seen some difficult situations in some administrative and academic things that have happened that made me wonder about making a change. And I have made some changes. I haven’t mentioned this, but along the way, I have done some administrative work, too. I spent five and a half years over in the Dean’s office in CALS (College of Agriculture and Life Sciences) and another four and a half after that in the Provost’s office as Associate Provost. I came back to the Biology Department in 2000 and they wanted someone to do the coordinator role in Biological Sciences and so I did that. Things don’t move as quickly and some of the things that go on in administrative work get a little … tedious. Aspects of administrative work sometimes also tend to be more subjective, which is not a negative, but just different. Overall that was a good experience, but I came to the conclusion that I would enjoy life even better if I were back working with students. I didn’t have a lab at that time because when I left to work in the Dean’s office, I gave up my lab. While that was a great experience, there were some aspects of it that made me think I could have a more enjoyable impact working more with students. So I made that decision. Really had some good experiences and interactions in that area as well.
Sometimes when you’re doing research as a graduate student, you kind of wonder: Will this reach a positive conclusion? How long? But that doesn’t make one want to give up; you just muster more determination. I had some times like that where I wondered: Is this going to work out? I was in grad school for a good while. My dad used to joke — I guess he was joking about it — he said whenever I was about five years old and friends would come by and say, “You’re about ready to go to school, aren’t you?” And I’d say, “No! I’m never going to school.” He said, “We had this difficulty getting you into school and now we can’t get you out!”
What are some things that your middle school self would be surprised about considering your life now?
My self, not my classmates? Well, I suppose it has to do with those opportunities that I mentioned. I came from a small place. My classmates had done some traveling, but I had never left South Carolina until that trip I made on the Trailways bus to Knoxville, Tennessee. But I was beyond middle school age then. I’d be surprised that I have been able to travel to the places I’ve been and done some of the things I’ve done. I was thinking this morning about something that happened when I was an American Council on Education Fellow. Each year they would choose 32 people to participate in administrative internships and I spent a year at the University of Colorado working with the administrators there. We’d go around to different areas of the country to learn about the educational system in that state. We visited Harvard University, when Derek Bok was president. We were seated at the President’s table and I was on his right and he was talking about the recruitment process, and he said that what he did was get some names and find out who’s doing what in a particular area and interview them and make the selection. So at the end of his remarks I raised my hand and asked the question, “How do you assure yourself that you have selected the right person?”
The other fellows and the director said that if anybody should have asked that question, I was the one, because of how I phrased it. It was not threatening, it was not challenging or anything. But it still got at the question that they wanted to know as well. And he answered, and that was OK. But I was thinking that this little guy from Zion, South Carolina, had been to all these places and interacted with a lot of interesting people. It was a lot of opportunities that I did not envision at that time. It’s been nice… Including you. [laughs] Interesting people. Articulate people. Folks who are really interested in their area and committed to making a difference and I sensed that in you. I knew that even reading Your Wild Life. It’s evident.
I tell the students that it’s why I like to hang out with young people — so I stay young. I like to hang out on the college campus so I can continue to learn. Nobody stops anybody from studying and continuing to grow, but it’s a whole lot easier to do when you’re in an environment like this. Just never stop.
My classmates had done some traveling, but I had never left South Carolina until that trip I made on the Trailways bus to Knoxville, Tennessee.
If you could give your current students some advice, what would you say? You were talking about lifelong learning before.
Just continue. Just do all the things you can. You know Justin Hills? [Bill gets up from his desk and gets a picture frame prominently displayed on his desk of him and Justin Hills, a Dunn Lab undergraduate researcher alumnus.] Talk about experiences, he’s had them, hasn’t he? [Shows me a picture of the two of them at Justin’s college graduation] There have been a lot of students, some who haven’t blossomed as rapidly or to the depth that Justin and others have, but still benefit from their experience here. I’m grateful to have had some part in interacting with them. You don’t realize what extent of an impact you’ve had. It’s great. [He pauses for a moment and replaces the frame on his desk next to his computer and sits back down.]
It’s what the Danforth Foundation was talking about when they talk about humaneness in teaching. Some years I received the Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor Award. They had a little celebration for me in the lobby at David Clark Labs and invited several former students, including Karl Smith who is now a dentist in Cameron Village. Karl’s mother worked in the Poultry Science Department, and she sent me a note thanking me for my work with Karl and for inviting him to the program. I saw her and her husband in a restaurant about a month ago, and she was surprised that I remembered who she was. I just encourage students to do the interaction and get all these experiences because they’re going to be very valuable. What we learn outside of the classroom is so important. In terms of volume, it might be greater than what we learn in the classroom. I wouldn’t want to say that publicly, but it’s valuable. It certainly supplements what we learn in the classroom, it can make it more meaningful.
What we learn outside of the classroom is so important. In terms of volume, it might be greater than what we learn in the classroom. I wouldn’t want to say that publicly, but it’s valuable.
Has anyone ever told you that you were wrong?[immediately laughs] Well, two things. The person says, “Why do you always answer a question with a question?” and the other person says, “Do I?” or “Does that bother you?” So, yes. People have told me that I was wrong and they haven’t been reluctant either! Most of them have done it in a way that didn’t injure my ego to the point that I would crawl away somewhere and give up. My first reaction to your question was, “Yes! My wife tells me that every day!” No, but constructive criticism is good. And there are times when I have suggested to people that they try to say something in such a way so that the persons don’t think worse of themselves. You can really injure somebody if you approach it in the wrong way. You don’t want to do that.
Especially as an educator when you are trying to encourage your subject because you love your subject.
On my evaluations, in the part about the instructor being enthusiastic about the subject and knowledgeable, I noticed that they still say that and I’m glad. I’m a different person when I get in the classroom. I might seem kind of reserved and so forth in regular conversation, but it wasn’t that way with you because we’re kindred spirits in terms of educators and having the same views related to teaching and learning… But I do a lot of things: ask them about hopscotch when I’m talking about electrons and their behavior in photosynthesis or when I speak about nerve impulses and saltatory conduction. I mention that “saltatory” and “salient” have the same origin that means jumping or leaping. Thus the jumping amphibians are often called “salientia.” I make those kinds of connections. And I demonstrate the saltatory conduction! I put myself into it. I’m not like that other guy who said, “If I had any faults, I would admit it,” but I recognize and appreciate when people point it out to me when they do it in a humane way.
Cognizant of someone else’s feelings in that context. How is it going to affect that person’s self esteem and feeling of value as a person? We don’t want to injure or damage that.
I had some really good teachers in college, too, at Livingstone in Salisbury. At the time there were 800 students. We got to know all the students and faculty. So Dr. Levi Walker taught me most of my Biology — I patterned my presentations and my attitudes toward students after him more than any I did from others. His grandson is here. He just completed his first year in engineering. I’ve seen him a couple of times and told him I’m not looking over his shoulder, but I just mentioned that to indicate that it’s like a network of all these folks. I have gotten to the point where I’m seeing the offspring of people I’ve taught; it’s gratifying to see their sons and the daughters.
How is it going to affect that person’s self esteem and feeling of value as a person? We don’t want to injure or damage that.
Did you ever get in trouble in school?
Nothing serious. The teachers used to be really strict about when they left the room — they didn’t allow any talking, I guess because it would disturb the other classes. That was the main infraction that I had to deal with sometimes because I like to talk [laughs]. Surprise, surprise. That was not a major infraction or anything. Never anything serious — I wasn’t involved in any kind of fighting. About the biggest thing that happened would be that a student or two would sneak a cigarette into the restroom. Regular cigarettes, not anything else. There would be some tussling sometimes, but not a serious fight. Nobody got shot. Nobody tried to cut anybody. It was a pretty calm environment with no real crime. People got loud sometimes, but the teachers had a way of getting that in control. Times have changed, I mean, as we’ve seen.
I have a silly question, but maybe it’s not a silly question. If you could have any superpower, what would it be, why would you want it and what would you do with it?[At this point he starts wiggling in his seat like he just can’t stay in it any longer.] I don’t know if it would be to fly or just to be able to hover. And that’s what I’m going to tell you about because when I’m talking to my students about the development between the yolk and the egg and the way the patterns of development can proceed, I talk about birds and reptiles. I mention that the chicken development — it develops as a disk over the yolk. [He jumps out of his chair and walks over to his desk.] So I do this. [Puts both arms outstretched parallel in front of him resting on his desk.] And then I do this. [Lifts one leg and puts it straight out behind him.] And I say, “I can take both my hands off the podium and lift my other leg up and just hover here, but then you would know my secret identity.” They get a chuckle about that. I think that maybe if I had the ability to hover I could do that one time in one of those classes and see their reaction, that might be interesting.
Dr. William Grant is a Professor of Biology at North Carolina State University. He is an Alumni Distinguished Undergraduate Professor and Coordinator of Biological Sciences. He has been on faculty at North Carolina State University for over four decades.