On a cold day last December, Professors Spencer Barrett and James Thomson gave their last BIO120 lecture. Both will retire later this year. The ultimate tag team, these two have been a cornerstone of U of T’s Life Science program. Barrett has been teaching ecology and evolution to nearly every Life Science undergraduate who has passed through Convocation Hall’s doors since 1990, with Thomson joining him in 2007.
Thomson is a captivating lecturer who often opts for showing rather than telling. Nothing woke students up faster over the years than his annual demonstrations, which included dangling a rat over a blender to show the difference between studying whole organisms compared to studying blended cells and heating up a pinecone with a hair dryer to demonstrate how pinecones release seeds after a forest fire.
Barrett is memorable for weaving tales of Darwin’s adventures with stories from his own decades of experience. Showing past photos of himself waist-deep in water hyacinths and scenic panoramas, Barrett’s lectures kept eyes open even at the earliest hours.
Barrett’s impact is exemplified well in his successor for BIO120, Stephen Wright. Wright, now an associate professor in the Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology, was taught BIO120, then known as BIO150, by Barrett.
Wright gained some of his first research experience in the Barrett lab. Driven by enthusiasm, excitement, and a stomach full of butterflies, Wright contacted Barrett when he was in the second year of his undergraduate degree to ask about a lab position. “I can remember my hand shaking as I picked up the phone, at the prospect of speaking directly to this ‘rock star’ Prof [who] had given [these] awe-inspiring lectures to us in first year,” wrote Wright.
Barrett helped him become an effective member of the lab, igniting his passion for evolutionary biology. “I got to attend lab meetings, measure plants, do fieldwork, chase bees with flowers tied to sticks, and conduct my own research project on Trillium [flowers],” recalled Wright.
Students have sometimes shaped Barrett’s research as well. During a BIO120 tutorial a few years ago, between questions about polymorphisms and Darwin, Barrett fielded a question about genetic drift that he did not how to answer. Having to ponder this question led to innovative work in his laboratory.
“Thinking about the problem [led me] to think more deeply about the system I study,” said Barrett, adding that it led to one of his laboratory’s most important discoveries. “That is often the way science works. Students asking good questions!”
Thomson is quite the act to follow as well, with his infectious humour and habit of putting on blues classics from his youth in Convocation Hall before class. He was awarded the President’s Teaching Award in 2016 and was also named a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. Recognized both as an educator and a scholar, this is an extraordinary combination of highly prestigious awards.
“My role models excelled in both teaching and research, and this pair of awards makes me feel that I have been able to live up to their example,” explained Thomson.
Thomson’s successor, Megan Frederickson, recognizes the gravity of assuming this new teaching assignment. Having taught EEB440 with Thomson for many years, she hopes to keep his teaching style of both showing and telling.
“He’d always bring the students to his lab to see the (live) bumblebees he was studying in flight cages—a great example of synergism between teaching and research,” wrote Frederickson.
Thomson and Barrett are both proud of the doctoral students they have supervised. Of Thomson’s 23 students, he said, “The credit for their success belongs to them, but a little bit of glory gets reflected back to me.”
Barrett also spoke fondly of the PhD students he supervised. “Seeing them achieve their goal is one of the best things about being an academic.”
Regarding their retirement, both professors feel a sense of sadness but also excitement for the future of BIO120. Thomson will miss everything about lecturing except writing exams and assigning grades. Barrett felt the weight of his last BIO120 lecture, realizing that it was the end of a 40-year teaching era. “I was very aware that this was finally the end and that had a certain sadness attached to it… I have always considered teaching the course an unusual privilege that I never took for granted, so giving that all up was bittersweet.”
Despite this, he has faith in the course’s new instructors and looks forward to seeing BIO120 evolve with new instructors who will bring their own passion and ideas to the course.
Thomson’s iconic model organism, the pika, will not be forgotten any time soon either. Despite never personally researching the animal, Thomson, who conducts most of his summer fieldwork in the alpine habitats of Colorado, enjoys going out of his way to the talus slopes to seek out the rabbit-like creatures. “I intend to keep those projects going as long as I stay healthy enough to handle the altitude. So, yes, pikas are in my future. Things are looking good,” explained Thomson.
He has been collecting thank you notes over the years, mementos of the many students whom he has inspired. “I now have a small but choice collection of hand-drawn pika pictures. You probably can’t imagine how affecting these are,” said Thomson.
As this chapter closes, Barrett’s advice to students is, “Believe in yourselves and be prepared for long hours of hard work and deciding on what excites you most.”
He also urges us to not take the opportunities we have for granted. “In Canada we are exceptionally fortunate to have great universities… [and] opportunities that students in less developed countries can only dream of.”
Thomson found his path toward an academic career in the charisma and inspiration of his own professors. His advice to students is to get involved with those whose work you find inspiring and impactful. “U of T has many profs… who can transmit their love for what they do. Find out who they are,” he urged.
New BIO120 students filing into Convocation Hall next September will not be instructed by Thomson or Barrett, but they have left their marks. And maybe, just maybe, a pika or water hyacinth will find its way onto a set of lecture slides.