Potash Hill

Phylogenetic Tree: The Evolutionary Legacy of Bob Engel

Bob Cabin is one of the many former biology students of retired Marlboro professor Bob Engel who has gone on to make his own mark in the world of life sciences. He said, “Bob was the first professor I ever had that really challenged me, the first to befriend me in a real, substantive way and the first to tease me mercilessly.” Although the elder professor Bob would rather that we observed his retirement with a simple, “He rode his motorcycle off into the sunset,” that would hardly do for many Potash Hill readers. Instead, we rounded up a small sampling of Bob’s “academic genealogy” to share a bit about their own careers and Bob’s impact on their trajectories.

Tom Good ’86 received his Ph.D. from the University of Kansas, where he studied hybridization in seabirds along the Pacific coast. Since 2001 he has been a research biologist at the National Marine Fisheries Service/NOAA Fisheries lab in Seattle, Washington, where he conducts research on seabird-fisheries interactions (see Potash Hill Winter–Spring 2007). “I had started at Marlboro with the idea of fashioning a Plan on education, but after taking an introductory biology class with Bob, I was hooked on the subject. Additional classes followed, and I knew then that my life would revolve around biology and ecology. In fact, much of my present research traces all the way back to Bob’s tutelage at Marlboro. I admired his knowledge of the natural world (broader than anyone I have ever met) and his tireless devotion to teaching in the field.”

After leaving Marlboro, Hall Cushman ’82 received his M.S. in ecology and evolutionary biology from the University of Arizona and his doctorate in biology from Northern Arizona University in 1989. He is now a professor of biology at Sonoma State University in northern California, where he has been teaching and conducting research on population and community ecology since 1994. “Bob’s influence on my life and professional trajectory was, and still is, nothing short of profound. To this day, I vividly remember meeting him in 1978 when, during an epic snowstorm, I visited Marlboro as a prospective student. I was considering multiple colleges and majors at the time but, after this meeting, decided to attend Marlboro, study biology and work closely with Bob. This decision is one that I have never regretted—I am still devoted to Marlboro, biology, teaching and research.”

Post-Marlboro, Tracey Devlin ’82 earned a master’s degree in science education and taught biology and physical science at the high school level and at Landmark College. Along with Dan Toomey ’79, she subsequently started Marlboro’s Learning Resources Center (now Academic Support Services), which offered assistance with learning and teaching skills and strategies to students and faculty. For the past several years, Tracey has been a private tutor and stay-at-home mom. “During our first field trip for Plants of Vermont, we stood shrouded in dense fog on the top of Mount Mansfield listening to Bob expound upon the adaptive strategies of some tiny arctic plant while the wind whipped around us. It was so cold that one student had Bob’s toy poodle zipped inside his jacket so she wouldn’t get hypothermia, while others were wearing spare socks on their hands. I thought, ‘This is dedication.’”

Norman Paradis ’79 earned his M.D. from Northwestern University Medical School and went on to practice and teach emergency medicine at universities across the country, most recently at the University of Southern California. No longer working full time at the university, Norman now works as a part-time chief medical officer for biotech start-ups. “Since leaving Marlboro, I have spent much of my professional life in a dialogue with colleagues and students on the complexity and beauty of living systems. After all of those now innumerable conversations, Bob still stands out. No one has made me feel more powerfully that life on our planet is, when all is said and done, amazing. And I have chosen that word specifically for its unscientific connotation, for when Bob gets going and is in full didactic plumage, the vision is not simply empirical but, in the end, miraculous.”

Lara Knudsen ’03 received her M.D. as well as a master’s degree in public health from George Washington University in 2008, after extensive international experience working on women’s health in Uganda and Peru. She is currently finishing up a residency in family medicine and in August plans to move back home to Oregon (with her husband, Chris Jones ’05). “Biology class with Bob was fascinating because he would open each class with the question, ‘Well, what are you curious about?’ And we could ask him anything—why do leaves change colors, why do birds have different calls, what are the parasites I brought back from India? He was always game for any random biology question, and in fact seemed to center his class around them. Bob helped me establish a habit of being naturally curious about things, which leads to endless learning—a valuable asset in the field of medicine.”

Having worked on conservation in the desert southwest since he left Marlboro, Tim Tibbitts ’80 is now a wildlife biologist at Organ Pipe Cactus National Monument in Arizona. There he manages programs for endangered species, wildlife management, visiting researchers and other activities. Tim led efforts to restore Quitobaquito Pond, saving the endemic Quitobaquito pupfish and Sonoyta mud turtles from extinction. “Bob introduced me to Quitobaquito on a Marlboro field trip in 1979, so I’ve thought fondly of him during many days of working out there in the dust, mud, bulrush, stinging waterbugs, Africanized honeybees and 110-degree heat. I came from a rough, rural public high school, and Bob taught me to learn, think and grow better. His passion for and knowledge of biology was highly contagious. My vocation has been an attempted 30-year extension of Bob’s desert biology field course, minus the wild nights at the Bum Steer in Tucson.”

After graduating from the University of Arizona in 1999 with a B.S. in nursing, Cristina Wigert ’92 worked at the University Medical Center in an intensive care “step down” unit, dealing with trauma and transplant patients. She went on to work at several other hospitals in Tucson before recently moving back to New England. “My physiology tutorials with Bob were probably better than any I could have gotten at a large university, allowing me to jump right into a nursing program and providing me with the knowledge I need on a daily basis. I have very happy memories of my tutorials in Bob’s little corner office, the one infested with cockroaches and always smelling a bit like a swamp. I would settle into his beat-up old chair for a stimulating hour’s discussion on the evolution of air-breathing in lungfish. Those were good times.”

Peter Newiarowski ’84 went on to get his doctorate in ecology and evolution from the University of Pennsylvania and conducts research on the physiology and ecology of lizards and salamanders. He has taught biology at the University of Akron since 1995, and in 2009 was made the interim director of Integrated Bioscience, a doctoral program he helped develop. “Bob made me want to be a biologist, and that came out of nowhere. Bob’s teaching was transformative like that for many students. Leading by example, he encouraged and guided his students to be creative, analytical, playful and passionate. Bob is the most gifted teacher I have ever encountered or probably ever will. I fondly remember his frequently foul-mouthed bird muttering expletives in his office, the trance he would seem to go into when watering plants in the greenhouse and his insane and irrational love of the VW microbus.”

Bob’s colleague at Marlboro for 22 years and counting, Jenny Ramstetter ’81 said, “Bob helped me shape my childhood love of nature into a life of studying plants and teaching.” Jenny is pleased to announce a new award to celebrate Bob’s extraordinary gifts as a teacher, naturalist and friend to so many Marlboro students. “Although Bob is retiring, I know he will continue to inspire students and those in other walks of life: residents of a local nursing home, fellow motorcyclists, my own young children and more. We offer the new Robert E. Engel Award to the next generation of naturalists from Marlboro College.”