Thank a Teacher Thursday: Dominic Casulli and the Power of Encouragement, Part 1

05/29/2015 10:39 am ET | Updated May 29, 2016

If we've seen one thing over and over again in this series of stories about influential teachers, it's that a little personal attention and encouragement from a teacher can change the course of a student's life. In the case of Dickson Despommiers, Professor Emeritus of microbiology and public health at Columbia University in New York, it was high school biology teacher Dominic Casulli who noticed Dickson's curiosity, fed his imagination, and challenged him to reach for impossibly high goals.

The flame that Mr. Casulli lit propelled Dickson into a career in biological research. Even better, one of the qualities that Casulli nurtured -- Dickson's imagination -- turned out to be crucial when Despommier, after 30 years of continuous NIH support, ran into the buzzsaw of relentless budget cuts. Despommiers, relying only on his trust in his scientific chops, and a willingness to explore unlikely ideas, launched a second career that may be even more exciting than the first.

But first, let's go back to the little town of Dumont, New Jersey, where Despommiers moved with his family at the age of 11. Like most 11 year olds, Despommiers says he had no idea what he wanted to do with his life, but when it came time to sign up for high school science classes, Dickson opted for biology and that's where he encountered Mr. Casulli. Despommiers told me, "He was a young man just starting out on his teaching career in his mid-twenties.

He got a masters degree in biology at Rutgers. He never wanted to pursue a career in biology --you know, [to get] a PhD -- but he fell in love with the idea of conveying knowledge." Despommiers was captivated by the extra material Casulli would post on the chalkboard --whatever he'd read recently, or found interesting, whether or not it was related to that day's topic. Dickson began to appreciate "how deep a science biology was. When you've already messed around with butterflies and fish and such, you have a certain idea, but he got across how interconnected life was. He made it so interesting that you had to do the reading!" Well, perhaps not every student felt that way, but for those students who were engaged, Mr. Casulli would provide more and more things to read. Despommiers devoured all of it.

A quick aside -- I've presented quite a few stories about scientists who are thankful for teachers who allowed them to experience science first-hand, such as those of Stefano Bertuzzi, whose teacher had her students doing genetics experiments with fruit flies, or Terry Chapin, whose teacher took his students out into the winter woods. Despommiers is the first example of a teacher who primarily inspired his students with the written word. Now I'm not knocking the current emphasis on experiential learning and hands-on science, but it's perhaps worth remembering that words on a page, especially if they form good stories, can also be powerfully inspiring.

Another quick aside -- Despommiers' enthusiasm for all the biology he was learning was not met with open arms by his deeply religious parents. As he put it, "When you start coming home with this new knowledge and you start spouting it out at the dinner table it [can start a] warfare of ideas...I was] going to school and learning these [blasphemous] things." That wasn't easy, and Despommiers wondered why his parents couldn't see it as Mr. Casulli did -- "that you could have both religion and science."

In any event, Despommiers claims he wasn't that great a student, earning "mostly B's and not very motivated to do better that." So it came as a shock when Mr. Casulli chose him and one other student to represent Dumont High School at a competition held by Rutgers University. Two students from every high school in New Jersey competed in a four-hour exam, with full scholarships given to the top 10 scorers. "I was stunned that out of all of the kids in the class, he picked me....finally I was identified by someone as having a brain!" Well, to cut a long story short, despite studying all the books Mr. Casulli gave them, neither Despommiers nor his classmate reached the top ten. In fact, they maybe just barely landed in the top half. But Despommiers wasn't discouraged; he remembers, "I was sold [on science] at this point and [I told myself]: 'You need to know a lot more than you know now!'"

Despommiers had been hooked by what lures so many of us into science: "Science is an open-ended question -- no matter how deeply you dig, there's always another layer. Mr Casulli...if he did one thing, he encouraged curiosity."

What a contrast from the stereotypes we so often hear about high school biology class, that it's all about memorizing lists of arcane vocabulary, passively receiving and repeating facts, never realizing that science is alive and intriguing and never finished. Clearly it doesn't have to be that way -- even when a teacher is encouraging students to bone up for a big test!

So here's a big hats-off to Mr. Casulli, with whom Despommiers is still in touch, prompting him to conclude: "I left that class with two things--an encouraged deeper interest in biological science, and a friend."

Coming up in part 2: How Mr. Casulli's early encouragement turned out to be a gift that kept on giving...