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January 25, 2008
By John Trent
Dick Tracy tells the stories of his students, because their stories are a part of his story, of his history.
His recollections of his students are rich and precise, and seem to take on a life of their own. His words flow easily, like turning the pages of a family photo album.
In fact, a few moments earlier, Tracy pulls out a series of photographs of many of his graduate students, both past and present. The photos sit in front of the silver-haired professor of biology on a table and seem to have their own energy. There is one unmistakable commonality. There isn’t a frown in the bunch.
Who could blame the students for wishing to return a smile, particularly considering that the man behind the lens for many of the photos - Tracy, an unrepentant shudder bug - has prefaced practically every soft-spoken sentence he has ever uttered with what else ... but a smile?
“I treat my graduate students with respect, and I treat them as peers in the enterprise of science,” says Tracy, who was recently honored with the University’s Graduate Advisor of the Year award. “I don’t talk down to them, and I keep telling them how great they are. If they do something wonderful, I say, ‘Do you realize how many people you’ll impact if you can get that published, or if you can take that to the next step?’
“They get this sparkle in their eyes. They want to be as good as I think they are. They never want to disappoint me, and I want them to learn never to underachieve and disappoint themselves.”
In addition to a research career that has earned him a national reputation as one of the country’s top ecologists and conservation biologists - he is a Fellow in the American Association for the Advancement of Science, and has served in leadership roles in the Ecological Society of America and the American Society of Zoologists - Tracy’s work with graduate students during his career has been remarkable.
By his own count, Tracy has mentored 18 master’s students, 21 Ph.D. students and 10 postdoctoral students. Of this number, 18 have become professors in universities all over the world, and three others are working at academic institutions not as professors.
The cumulative impact on knowledge accumulation and dissemination from this academic lineage is simply enormous.
“I enjoy it so much,” he says of being a graduate student advisor. “I enjoy helping my students become the best they can be.”
He says a key realization made not that long ago helped him better understand himself, and how to engage students more meaningfully.
“There was a time when I thought I was pretty good with graduate students, and I would think, ‘I’m pretty good at getting students to exceed their own capacity,’” he says. “But that’s kind of stupid. Really, I can only get from them what they’re capable of doing. So that’s what I try to do. I try to get them to be everything they are capable of being, and to develop pride in their achievements.”
And this is what always amazes and pleases Tracy - the amount of great work his students can accomplish during the course of their master’s or Ph.D. programs.
“When you see them having great success, that’s what brings a smile to your face,” Tracy says. “It’s not writing that great paper - though I do get pretty excited about things like that. It’s when I have a student who has had a great success.
“To me, that’s the epitome of what I do.”
Tracy loves photography. For many years, he was seen at Wolf Pack women’s basketball games, shooting game action for a compilation of photos that he would present to the team’s seniors. And it is this love of the eternally captured moment that helps him make the first connection with his students.
Among the collection of photos that he shares with them is a part flow chart, part biology “genealogy” of the academic lineage of scholarly ancestors leading to Tracy and his students.
The photos and information flow from Georges Cuvier, the 18th and 19th century scientist who pioneered the field of comparative anatomy, to Louis Agassiz, one of the “founding fathers” of modern American scientific tradition in natural history as well as a renowned teacher and tireless promoter of science in America whom, Tracy notes, “named probably about a third of all animal names in the U.S.,” to David Starr Jordan, “arguably the most important ichthyologist ever in North America” and founding president of Stanford University, to W. Dwight Billings, the former chairman of the Department of Biology at Nevada and later a Nevada Medalist who was one of the world’s foremost experts of plant life in alpine and arctic ecosystems.
“I want my students to have a sense of history and a sense of their place in history,” Tracy says. His fingers do small semi-circles over each of the names, and each of the accomplishments. “I want my students to feel special. This is their academic background. These are all people who are my academic ancestors and theirs.
“They just don’t have roots at any old place. Some of them have roots here, too.
“I tell my students, ‘This is what it’s all about. You have great roots, and I expect great things from you.’”
Perhaps the greatest thing for Tracy, though, is the fact that he still feels he is learning. He notes that one of his current students, Franziska “Fran” Sandmeier, is working with Tracy and Ken Hunter, the University’s former Vice President for Research and professor of immunology in the Medical School, on a project concerning disease persistence and populations of desert tortoises (the Nevada state reptile, which incidentally, is named after Agassiz).
Tracy has the desert tortoise part down pat.
“But I don’t know anything about immunology,” he says with a laugh. “But I am learning so much from Fran - she is such a spectacular student.”
As quickly as Tracy mentions Sandmeier’s name, though, he just as quickly lauds his other students as if to show that, to him, all of his students are equally important, interesting and fun.
“I have so much fun learning from my students,” he says. “In fact, whenever I get a student who is working on something that I know a lot about, it somehow becomes a little more boring to me. Students who are learning something that I don’t know a lot about, now that’s much more fun.
“I can name literally dozens of students - contemporary and past - who have pushed me in areas of population genetics, statistical modeling and physiology - they are great, and my world is so enriched from associating with these spectacular students, friends and academic progeny.”
In typical Tracy fashion, he says the Graduate Advisor Award is less a reflection of him and more a reflection of his students.
The smiles in the photos, after all, are hard to ignore.
Yet, without a first, encouraging smile to trigger a similar reaction in the students, where would all of them be today?
“This is all about them,” Tracy says, pointing the photos of his students. “It’s not about me.
“As far as I’m concerned, this is a great award because these are my progeny.”