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Professor in the spotlight: Chris Smith, Yucca Enthusiast

Dawn-Hunter Strobel

Lifestyles editor

After one year of studying biology, Professor Chris Smith told himself, “This is all really boring and I hate this.” But once he discovered the subjects of evolution, ecology and botany, he remembered why he wanted to be a biologist in the first place. Now, Smith is an evolutionary ecologist who focuses on coevolution, which is the process in which species evolve in response to one another. He specializes in plants and insects, and he recently received a Fulbright grant to study a kind of Yucca that only grows in Mexico. Though research is important to Smith, he also takes great joy in his teaching at Willamette. 

“You encounter a lot of people, especially at big research schools, who think that teaching is stupid and teaching is a waste of time,” Smith said. But to him, the best moments are when teaching and research overlap. “Working with students in my lab [and] taking students into the field might be the best part of all… The things I do with students in the lab, it’s teaching, it’s just teaching in a different way.” 

Smith grew up in Arizona with Saguaro cacti and brushes all around him, so he was interested in the outdoors and the organisms in it from a young age. With several other biologists in his family, he said, he was “biased towards that from the beginning.” 

He attended the University of Arizona for his undergrad, then took a hiatus to study bats in Eugene, OR before getting his PhD from Harvard in 2003. 

Smith came to Willamette because he wanted to work at a school that valued both teaching and research, and “Willamette was a nice blend of those things,” he said. He also had a love for the Pacific Northwest ever since working on his bat project, so he was eager to come back. 

Since coming to Willamette 12 years ago, Smith’s teaching philosophy has shifted substantially. “When I was really young I wanted to be a stage actor, so starting from grad school I was pretty good at lecturing and jumping around in front of the classroom and being entertaining. I think for a lot of the time I was teaching, I was mostly skating on charm,” Smith said, laughing. “I was trying to sort of be the professor that I wanted to have when I was an undergrad. And one of the things that I realized was that that was actually a really stupid way to teach.” 

Since this realization, he has shifted from lecture-only classes to trying to find a blend between lecture and having students discuss and figure things out on their own. Smith said that teaching a class with Emily Drew, a sociology professor at Willamette, was something that helped change his thinking. Drew’s classes are predominantly discussion oriented, and though this first seemed strange to Smith, he later came around to that style of teaching. “I started trying doing [classes] that way, and what I discovered was that people got it way, way, way better when they had to go through and figure it out.” 

Smith finds it gratifying when his teaching helps students not only discover something about biology, but also gain understanding about what it means to be learning. He said: “The best are the aha moments where they realize not just some obscure thing about biology, but they realize something about themselves. For example, that they may learn differently or that they may have different skills, but they still can become good at doing things. It just may take effort.” 

The highlights from Smith’s time at Willamette largely involve working with students in the field. One specific example Smith cited was a time he was teaching a research immersion class and one of his students was able to record a video of a moth pollinating a flower in a way that people hadn’t witnessed in a very long time. “[The student] was able to put the flower under the microscope and get this video of something that nobody had seen for 110 years,” Smith said, his voice brimming with excitement. “That night all the students were sitting around the fire and telling stories and we had this great research day and I was like, ‘Wow, this is it. This is the thing that I have been trying to build my whole life around.’ It was amazing.” 

Another exciting highlight for Smith is the Fulbright grant he just received. With his grant, he will live in Mexico City from January to May 2021 and work with global experts in the Yucca called Yucca Queretaroensis, which Smith has been studying for years. 

Smith expanded on this, saying, “Yuccas and yucca moths are special, special, special, and the reason they’re special, special, special is that the moths do something very weird, which is they actually go around and pick up pollen and put it right on the spot on the flower where it’s supposed to go, which is not like what most insects do. A bee is trying to get some nectar, maybe some pollen, but it really couldn’t give a shit about the flowers and they just sort of accidentally pollinate. In this case it looks like the moths are doing it on purpose.” 

But there’s one particular species of Yucca that no one can agree upon where it lives in the family tree of Yuccas. Different scientists get different results for where it should be classified, depending on what part of the Yucca leaf they’re getting their DNA sample from. “It’s very strange. So it’s what we call a rogue taxon. A rogue species,” Smith says. 

While Smith is in Mexico, he will hike up to the mountains where this species of Yucca lives to gather new samples. “Everybody’s kind of been using the same stuff that someone collected 20 years ago, more than that. So I’m gonna go there and I’m gonna get more,” Smith said. 

Outside of his work in the classroom and in the field doing research, Smith volunteers at the humane society and fosters dogs. He also is taking part in a fundraiser for HIV research, treatment and resources for homeless LGBTQ+ youth, which involves biking 500 miles from San Francisco to L.A. “It’s one of the more awesome things I’ve done in a long time,” Smith said.

Smith also camps and hikes frequently and recently helped start up Willamette’s OSTEM club. “OSTEM is Out in Science Technology Engineering and Math. It’s a national organization… It’s intended for LGBT people who are in the sciences or science inclined.” Smith then added with a smile, “Or science questioning.” 

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