Letter of Recommendation
by David Campbell
John Doe (who is my advisee for the Biology Major at Grinnell College) is a thoughtful, imaginative, hardworking, charismatic student who brims with natural curiosity and intelligence. Raised on a farm in northwestern Iowa, he has that admirable common sense of someone who makes a living off the land and is therefore a keen observer of natural history, both human and wild.
I feel that I know John better than almost any student I've taught at Grinnell College over the past twelve years because I've observed him in a variety of disparate milieus and circumstances: 1) he was a student in "Alaskan Field Systems," a field course in the Kenai Peninsula that I co-taught as Visiting Distinguished Professor at the University of Alaska, Anchorage in August 2003; 2) he was a member of the Grinnell College/U. of Iowa Bridging Project, entitled "Environmental Determinism in Amazonia," which I led to Brazilian Amazonia in December - January 2002 - 03; 3) he was a student in my spring semester 2003 course entitled "Tropical Biological Diversity," which has a two-week field phase in Belize; and 4) he was my summer research intern in Belize during summer 2003. I will deal with each of these experiences below.
Alaska. Last week I received an e-mail from Univ. of Alaska Biology Prof. Frank Von Hippel (who was the organizer of the Alaska Field Systems course), asking me if I would help him recruit John to be his graduate student starting in fall 2004. (John declined.) Frank and I were both dazzled by John, and came to regard him as more of a colleague than a student. Let me put it this way: among the students in the course John was simply outstanding. He threw himself into the field exercises with a vigor and passion that wore us all out. Case in point: early in the course Frank and I had the students dig cores into a seaside bog in order to decipher the alternating layers of moss and marine sand (indicating the uplifting and subsidence, respectively, of the terrain over the past 9,000 years). Most students pooped out after about seven or eight feet; John excavated 22 feet, wrestling with the core like an athlete with a caber, carefully examining every exhumed layer for clues with a hand lens. His field notebook f or the course--smudged, chock-a-block full of pressed plant specimens, stinking shellfish attached with Scotch Tape, and detailed notes--was like an encyclopedia of the Kenai, a collection of every object and thought that entered this student's roving mind. Back at Grinnell, I asked John for a Xerox of his notebook just so I could have a record of our trip; it was far better than the one I kept.
Brazil. Not surprisingly, given his background, agriculture and subsistence are of keen interest to John. And not surprisingly, among both the Iowa and Grinnell students, John was the most distinguished. Imagine turning loose a young Alfred Wallace or Charles Darwin in the Amazon-- the epitome of Earthly biological diversity--and you can imagine John. Questions, questions, questions all day and night long. John read more, hiked farther, dove deeper, canoed more inexhaustibly than any of the other students (and, I dare say, most of the faculty, too). He learned the rudiments of Neotropical plant taxonomy (at least at the family and often at the generic level), once again heaping specimens into his notebook. Just this afternoon, nine months after the Amazon journey ended, I asked John if he remembered ucuüba (Virola surinamensis in the nutmeg family), one of the many arcane species of tree I had showed him ever-so-briefly as we canoed past. Not only did John remember it, but he remembered exactly where we h ad seen it, too.
Belize. John continued his eager study of Neotropical plant taxonomy (and a newfound passion-ornithology--too) in Belize, both in the spring and summer 2003. I have taken about 90 students to Belize since 1993. Only three have learned the local flora in a manner that I would regard as professional. John is one (the other two are now earning their Ph.D.s plant ecology). During the summer's research, John became the natural leader of the three other students. Our goal was the quantitative inventory of 20 Maya forest gardens, a daunting task requiring the collection of tens of thousands of measurements of thousands of individual plants (one of the gardens alone had 233 species). This job required more than perseverance, care, and keen observation; it required diplomacy. Maya farmers are a skeptical lot--especially of Gringo outsiders--and it's tough to earn their respect. But John's work ethic, farmer's pragmatism, and look-at-you-square-in-eye integrity won the day. After our five weeks in Belize, John becam e an honorary campesino; those people really liked him. And, after a while, I came to rely on John, too, leaving him in charge of the garden research while I started a separate project on Maya pastures.
As John's advisor, I'm obliged to point out his other, more conventional, virtues: that he has been elected VP of the student government for the second year running, was the coordinator of the Grinnell Middle School Mentors Program, (a group of College students who roll up their sleeves and help disadvantaged local kids), and that after his first year he was awarded one of the highly competitive internships at CERA (Grinnell's prairie reserve). But they don't reveal the full dimension of this remarkable young man. To see that, you have to observe him in the field.
The bottom line: John Doe has the perfect spirit and drive to accomplish his proposed Watson on game ranching. The originality of the plan is characteristic Doe. I'm quite sure that he will succeed; moreover (and this is a much harder task) he will earn the hard-scrabble respect of the ranchers he meets.
Professor of Biology