I like to experience what life is like for the people that live there. I like to walk outside the city to see what people are growing in their vegetable gardens. I also love visiting the wild places where I can see the local plants, insects, and birds. – Paulette Bierzychudek
Outside of Chicago, in a humble neighborhood, you could find a young Paulette Bierzychudek gazing into her small back yard. “I spent my childhood, for some inexplicable reason, watching the bugs and organisms in my back yard. If I had had my druthers I would have grown up in a place where there were fields and streams and forests and I could just run wild but no, I had a little fenced-in back yard. I still had this desire to watch other living organisms and figure out what they were doing. It was my favorite thing to do.”
Sometimes the family would escape the daily routine. “Occasionally my parents would take us on vacations. We would go for fishing vacations to a lake in Wisconsin where we had some tumble-down cottage on the edge of the lake. Then I would run wild through the forest and collect blueberries and that kind of stuff. That was heaven for me.”
When she looked around and contemplated what she wanted to do in life, she knew she wanted to follow a different path than many in her large, Polish family. “I was the first in my family to go to college. I had no professional women role models whatsoever. The only women in my life who were not moms, non-working moms, were either nurses, and I hated blood, or they were nuns, which I did not aspire to become, or they were teachers. Being a teacher seemed like the path for me.“
While she was an excellent student as a young person, it wasn’t until later that the garden gazing paid off. “It wasn’t until high school that I discovered that biology was a subject,” she explains. “I liked going to school so I just kept going to school. Once college was over I thought, well I like this, I’m going to keep doing this, so then I went to graduate school.”
She was a tenured professor elsewhere when she spied the opening at Lewis & Clark. “Lewis & Clark looked like a place where we could innovate and where people were eager to try new things.”
An important component of all of her work, has been working in collaboration with “lots and lots” of Lewis & Clark students. “They are so enthusiastic, so full of energy, they’re so curious, they love the chance to contribute to pushing out the edges of what’s known about biology. I think one of the things students learn from me is the importance of seeing the natural world in a particular way, a reverence for it, an understanding of how it works, and I think our world needs that so badly. Working with students is a chance to spread that perspective really widely. Mostly Lewis & Clark students are just wonderful, generous, interesting people. They are just great fun and rewarding to spend time with.” She sees those same qualities in alumni. “You can sort of see the LC stamp on people. It’s a chance, like a time machine, to see what my students are going to be like in 15 or 20 years. From the alumni that I have spent time with, I know how eager they are to absorb new information, how they are going to pepper me with questions, which I am excited just thinking about. It’s so interesting to see how students mature and the adults they will become.”
When not working with students, she is well known on campus as being an expert in the garden. “I have not a blade of grass in my yard, it’s all flowers, vegetables, berry bushes and fruit trees.” In addition to digging in the dirt she loves to cook, take backpacking trips and immerse herself outdoors in nature.
Since her Catholic School days, she has traveled the globe, often backpacking and biking. Her list of destinations includes Mexico, Costa Rica, Argentina, Peru, Ecuador, Italy, France, England, the Netherlands, Germany, Spain, China, Japan, Kenya, Tanzania and Canada. She has picked up some good travel tips along the way. “Have a plan, but be prepared to leave it, don’t rely on it too heavily. Things are always going to happen that you have no control over and you will make yourself unhappy. You never know what you will encounter. When you travel some of the best things are the little unexpected things you discover.”
As wonderful as Lewis & Clark students are, they get even better when they get older. They still have that same curiosity and adventuresomeness, but they also have a sort of maturity that makes them even more fun as traveling companions. We teach students to be lifelong learners. When you see alumni, you see that in full force. I’m eager to get to know these folks and see where their Lewis & Clark education has taken them.