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Math as a Living Subject: An interview with Matt Ollis

In May, Hannah Noblewolf ’18 sat down with math professor Matt Ollis to talk about math—obviously—game theory, student research, and sustainability.

Hannah: Remind me, how long have you been at Marlboro?

Matt: I arrived in 2003, so I’m just finishing my 14th year. My first year was as the math fellow.

H: So, very few people actually enjoy math to a degree where they’d spend most of their lives doing it. What about math appeals to you so much?

M: Hmm, I don’t know. At school and high school I didn’t particularly love it. I enjoyed it well enough and was good enough at it that I kept going in that direction. Then when I was an undergrad I did a “research experience for undergrads” in the UK. That was the first time where I realized what it was actually like to do math, rather than just understanding the recipe in the book to follow—given this problem you do these steps and get this number and you put a red circle around it and everyone is happy. It’s much more, “Okay, here’s a problem that no one knows the answer to, you’ve got a batch of tools you can use, and you can try and invent new ones: try and come up with something. And we came up with some new little advance in math that no one else knew about and admittedly very few people cared about it. [laughter]

H: But if you cared about it, then...

M: It was a very different feeling, sort of like advancing knowledge in a way that math had never been to me, before that. It was fun to work on, very similar in vibe to solving puzzles. Like, if you enjoying doing Sudoku puzzles it’s the same sort of feeling of not knowing how to do something, figuring out how to work it all out, putting it all together and a feeling of success when you do it. I’ve found that doing math, upper-level math, has much more of that feeling to it than high school math does, or at least did for me. I got hooked at that point, sort of late in the process. I went from “math is what I seem to be best at, I’ll keep on doing it” to actually wanting to do it.

H: Where did you do that research experience?

M: I was at Queen Mary in the University of London, and then the research was in Keele, which is a small university that’s basically in this very small town, so the whole town is this small university.

H: Kind of like Marlboro? [laughter]

M: Except it’s much bigger than Marlboro. [laughter]

H: Yeah…

M: There were many thousands of students. Obviously at University of London, it’s embedded in London. Like it’s a small part of a huge city. Keele’s a very different vibe, and still a big place, but out in the countryside in the middle of England.

H: Do you see a utility for math no matter what your goals are? Do you think everyone should do math to some extent?

M: Sort of, but only in the way that I think everyone should do languages, and poetry, and like a hundred other things that no one actually has the time to do all of. I’m certainly against having a math requirement at Marlboro. I really like the sort of structure where people work out what it is they want to do and need to do, and are able to do that. So I try and make the math curriculum accessible in that sense, so that anyone who realizes that they want to add some math in can do so. What I’d really like is for everyone to think that they want to do some math. [laughter]

H: That’s funny.

M: I think most people would think that they’d want to do ceramics for example, because ceramics seems fun. And they don’t all get to actually go and do ceramics, but it seems vaguely appealing to most people and many people actually follow through on it. The bit that I’d like to change, if I had the power to change anything, is that sense of “yes I would like to do it.” I’d like everyone who leaves Marlboro to at least have the attitude that they could’ve done some math if it had fit together, and it would have been a valuable thing to do. There are all sorts of reasons why you might do that, ranging from it’s a beautiful thing to study and it’s fun to do, to you want to go and build bridges and you don’t want them to fall down. [laughter]

H: Ha, makes sense.

M: I’d like people to appreciate that more, and see how it might fit in with what they’re doing, even if they don’t end up doing it that same way. When you think about languages, perhaps, whatever you’re studying there’s probably something in another language that will help. And while you may not learn that language, you’d recognize it as something that you’d want to do given infinite time. I don’t think people feel that about math in the way that they do other subjects, which is a shame.

H: It is. What could we do to attract more people?

M: Every semester we try and offer a class, between me and the math fellow, that’s really inviting to different sections of the community.

H: I know that people always get really excited about the Theory of Game class.

M: Yeah. That is a class we’ve offered a few times, sort of like a “what’s going on” with board games. It’s certainly less than half math in that class, but there’s a bit of probability—sort of understanding dice—and then there’s traditional game theory—‘which is both math and economics, people interacting, making decisions—and also design features—like art components. People in that class can take whatever they’re most interested with in relation to games and run with it. The final project is usually either to design a small game or a component that adds on to an existing game, and changes it in some way. People have done some really creative things with that.

H: I know you offered that my first year and everyone was so excited.

M: Yeah, I think it’s run twice now. Maybe three times? Actually the first class came out of a Plan. There was a student who wanted to do game studies and did a brilliant Plan in a mix of economics, history, and math—all of those tools being brought to bear on games. There’s so much you can do with that.

H: Who was that?

M: Ian Mahoney (’12). Since then we’ve had a couple more people. For Martin Cahill (’10), we got an outside evaluator from Hasbro, which was cool. He was a game designer. It was really funny. Martin’s final project was a space-based combat game, and the guy from Hasbro was actually working on a space-based combat game at the time, which he couldn’t tell us about because he was under a non-disclosure agreement. [laughter]

H: What happened?

M: He said yes, Martin had been wrestling with some of the same sort of problems: how to make it feel like a game that’s set in space—other than just having spaceship encounters. What is it about being in space that you want to convey, and what’s different? That was a really really good orals, and it went well. It also means I got to be second reader on Plans that have got nothing to do with math at all. Paul Vorvick (’10) did one in sociology and theater, and he was really interested in the storytelling aspect of games and role playing, which I sort of tend not to be interested in as a general rule. But it was really fun to work with Paul and be able to look at these things and think about them.

H: So are you currently doing any sort of research outside of Marlboro?

M: Yes, but in many ways it’s not outside of Marlboro. I’ve tried with varying levels of success to maintain a research program—n the last few years it’s gotten increasingly more systematic. I’ve involved students here in research and there’s various ways to do that. If they’ve any interest in my subfield of math, then they can often incorporate that in their Plan and we can collaborate on that. Ambrose Sterr (’07) was probably one of the first. Our research was part of his Plan, we co-wrote a paper together, and that was great. I’ve since done it with a few other students.

H: That’s so great.

M: More recently, I’ve been getting money from the faculty professional development fund to employ a student research assistant over the summer, and that’s been really productive both for me and for the student. We’ve had a few papers come out of that as well. I’ve done that with Devin Willmott (’11), who’s now a grad student at the University of Kentucky, and Gage Martin (’16) who’s now a grad student at Boston College. And this year, (writing professor) Bronwyn Tate started this thing in November for NaNoWriMo, or National Novel Writing Month. And so for that I set up something I called MaMaReMo, or Marlboro Math Research Month [laughter]. I tried to do a little bit every day, and I’ve done that a couple times since, with Bronwyn and some others. The whole thing is accountability, so I’ve sort of told them what I’d done.

H: Cool.

M: Actually, one of the papers that I’ve worked on with Gage when she was a research assistant, we got stuck at one point. We were dealing with infinite objects and I usually play around with finite objects, so we didn’t quite have all the tools that we need. But (math fellow) Kaethe Minden plays with infinite stuff all the time. Usually different types of infinite stuff, but she was able to un-stick us, and we’re in the final stages of the three of us collaborating on a paper that we’re hoping to submit when we finish writing it. [laughter] It’ll probably be this summer. So that’s been really good.

H: So all of your research is in collaboration with Marlboro students?

M: I really have embedded it in Marlboro, and collaborate with Marlboro people a lot. There’s one project I’ve been working on for a while that’s almost finished as well, with John Schmitt from Middlebury College—he’s a mathematician there. Working on that with him has been fun. That's been a long, slow-ish one, but that’s almost done too.

H: How does your research tie in with teaching math at Marlboro?

M: I think it’s good to have an active research component to what I do as well. I think it helps the teaching here, as well as the sort of direct “hey here's an open problem that no one knows the answer to that you could work on and I can help you” with Plan students. Even in classes, having an active mathematician there, having that transition to thinking of math as a thing that people do and are still doing, as a living subject and there are problems that people still want to know the answer to. I think having someone who can embody that is different from having someone say, “here are the cookbook recipes, when you see this problem do these things.” Even if that’s the point of the course, and you’re just learning some Calculus to be able to apply these skills, I still think getting an appreciation for what math is is an important part of being in a math class.

H: What has been your role in encouraging sustainability monitoring at Marlboro?

M: I’ve been involved in various environmental committees, almost since I’ve been here. I’ve been on the EAC—the Environmental Advisory Committee—I had a break recently but I’m back on it now and I think I was the chair of it for six years, something like that. I’ve also been on the EQC (Environmental Quality Committee) and the Farm Committee, and as part of those roles I’ve tried to generally increase awareness about sustainability and change our practices—and also do various monitoring things.

H: What kinds of monitoring?

M: One of the things, when I was on the EAC last time around, was to introduce an annual energy report that looked at all the different buildings on campus, how much heating oil they used, how much electricity they used, and how those changed over time. It was a way to identify places where things seemed to be out of proportion, so we could do some work that would reduce the energy use. There are still problems, I’m actually going to be on the EQC next year, which is sort of the hands-on community action committee, about changing practices, whereas the EAC is much more structural and big picture. One of the big successes of the energy report, I think, was identifying the admissions building as one that was using a lot of energy for its size. So that’s where we put a lot of energy into retrofitting, and it cut its heating oil use down to one third of what it was previously, after adjusting for weather and how cold things are. It was a huge savings. There were lots of smaller things we did, other places where we identified that we could make a difference.

H: That was based on a class, right?

M: The energy report was just in the EAC, but then I did a class that was called something like “How Sustainable Is Marlboro College?” and that was looking more broadly. We used a couple of different ways to measure things, and the ecological footprint was one the main ones. That’s a much broader measure of how sustainable we are. How much electricity and fuel oil we use is a big part of it, but also how much trash do we generate, what’s our impact on the world overall, compared with how much the world regenerates—that’s sort of the setup for an ecological footprint. A good definition is how much average earth area would it take to regenerate the ecological systems that we’re using up by burning oil and generating trash. It’s hard to get a good absolute value for that kind of thing, for what it is, but what the real benefit of those things are is that we can track changes. So as long as we use the same methodology each time we do it, we get a comparison and we can say okay, we’ve tried to reduce our trash contribution to the regular waste stream and we can see: have we cut it in half, have we knocked ten percent off of it? Once we get these benchmarks in place we can try and improve in comparison, which I think is often a more useful internal tool than knowing just the total number.

H: What would you say is your favorite thing about teaching at Marlboro?

M: I think the close working relationship with students, and the collaboration, and how I decide what to teach based on what students want to do. They teach me new things, and I have to learn new things based on the direction that they’re interested in, where I was previously handed a syllabus and told here’s the syllabus, here’s exactly what you need to teach. Any changes had to go through committees, and it would very much be top-down, students’ interests wouldn’t have much of a say. Whereas here, even within an individual class, even a fairly standard one like Calc 2, I can say here are the things we definitely need to cover in Calc 2, so you know the sort of things that you should know, but then there’s still plenty of flexibility within that and as the students see what they’re interested in and what they enjoy most and what would be most useful to them we can adjust. And the classes are small enough that they can either split up and do their own thing and report back, or they can agree that they’re interested in the same direction and do that so that’s a really good feature. It works really well in classes and it works even more so in tutorials. That’s a really great process, having students so much in control of what they learn, and why they learn it, and making the choices about what they’re going to study.

H: Is it ever overwhelming? It must be sort of a double-edged sword, in a way, that you’re responsible for the whole math curriculum.

M: It can be, but mostly in a good way. It sort of comes back to the lack of math-focused students here, so I don’t have years where I’ve got eight students, all seniors, all pulling me in different directions. I quite often have to teach lots of classes because lots of students need some basic math skills to go and do other things, while other students needing fairly advanced math, so that they can do physics. There’s usually only the one or two students a year who are pulling me in new directions. So there’s usually something new I’m learning, while in the process of teaching, but it’s usually only one or two things at a time rather than ten.

H: Do you have any insider information on when our professor of coloring, Molly Ollis, will return from sabbatical?


M: She’s quite annoyed that someone else has taken over her office and she’s looking forward to reclaiming it this summer. She’s got a good attitude to teaching, she does it over the summer when the students aren’t here, and it’s much easier that way.


Remembering Bob: Stories about Bob Engel, biology professor emeritus


By John Hayes


Bob put his enormous vocabulary to use in surprising ways, often as euphemisms. Mixed grill referred to southern Vermont’s all-too-frequent mixture of snow, sleet, and freezing rain, which he hated. Free-flowing and sanitary referred ironically to the state of one’s digestive tract, particularly in regard to the aftermath of tropical biology field trips. Itzcuintlis (eats-queent’-lees), shortened version of the Mexican hairless dog name Xoloitzcuintli (which we corrupted to ess-quint’-las), referred to students’ parents. 

He also liberally handed out nicknames, most of them less than flattering, except for those Bob held in deep respect, such as John MacArthur, who became Pa Pa (with the accent on the second Pa). Maybe others will share theirs on this website. Mine evolved in about 1980 on a spring break Florida ornithology field trip.

Just prior to spring break, I traveled to Ohio along with my then-wife, Joanne, and our daughter, Stefanie, to attend a greenhouse conference. The plan was to catch up with the Marlboro field trip already under way at Stephen Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia. Unfortunately, along the way we had one of those Saab stories (brakes) and were delayed a day. Bob and the students were nowhere to be found when we arrived at the park. But I knew in those pre-cell phone days that he would leave us a note.

When we didn’t find a note in the campground, we went to the ranger station, but the on-duty ranger couldn’t find a note for John Hayes. So, we went back to the campground to look again. Nothing. Back to the ranger station. Again, no note for John Hayes. After ruminating for a while about the lack of a note, Joanne went back in and said, “Are there any notes at all back there?” The ranger looked around and said, well, just this one, for “Meatloaf, Mrs. Loaf, and Little Burger.” Hah!

We met them the next day at the southern tip of Lake Okeechobee, and I became Loafy from then on.

Field Trip Highlights

By John Hayes 

Georgia Karma. In the early days, not having access to a college van, we drove cars on field trips. When we camped at Stephen Foster State Park in the Okefenokee Swamp in Georgia, signs warned about feeding the wildlife. Ignoring those and Bob’s stern lectures about helping wildlife become too used to humans, Dan Brown fed peanut butter out of a half-filled gallon jug from the dining hall to the abundant raccoons. Sometime in the middle of the night, Jon Friedman awoke to find about a dozen raccoons, having climbed in through the open sun roof, inside Dan Brown’s Saab. They had opened the peanut butter container and spread oily tracks all over the cloth seats. It doesn’t seem like Bob could have dreamed up a better “I told you so” moment.

Costa Rica Body Surfing. In January 1981, Bob, John MacArthur, my then-wife Joanne, our daughter Stefanie, and I traveled to Costa Rica. For part of the trip, we camped out on Playa Naranjo in Santa Rosa Park to watch enormous leatherback turtles lumber up the beach to lay eggs while bioluminescent dinoflagellates lit up the surf with each crashing wave and the Southern Cross and other constellations that we can’t see in Vermont lit up the night sky. During the day, we body surfed on gigantic waves that tossed us head over heels up onto the beach. While Bob and I treaded water waiting for the next big wave, all of a sudden Bob took off swimming for the beach. When he got about half way there, he turned and yelled “Shark!” I looked around to see a giant fin out of the water maybe 20 feet away from me. Statistics show that sharks kill only about 5 people each year worldwide. Fortunately for me, I was not one of them. Bob undoubtedly knew about the low probability of attack; otherwise, why would he have taken off for the beach before pointing out the fin? 

Red in Tooth and Claw. Students over the years have parodied Bob’s “love for all life forms.” We’ve watched him let mosquitoes bite him rather than squash them. He didn’t reflexively pull away when critters got a hold of him when he held them loosely, not wanting to hurt them. Invariably, some of these led to blood, often lots of it, such as the time a collared lizard clamped down on his finger in a California Joshua tree woodland, or when a garter snake grabbed the back of his hand in Yellowstone Park, or when someone’s or his own parrot bit down on his hand while handling them. No matter how hard most of us try, it’s almost impossible not to jerk one’s hand away when one is about to be or is being bitten. How Bob always held steady is an eternal enigma.

Hernias, B Hole, and Cactuses. While in Oaxaca on a tropical biology field trip, Bob was feeling “puny.” We took him to a clinic where the doctor diagnosed a hernia, which he wanted to operate on immediately. Unsurprisingly, Bob did not want to go under the knife deep in southern Mexico. So, we made a group decision to start out that night and to drive our several vehicles around the clock to McAllen, Texas, about a 20-hour drive, but extended 2 hours by getting split up in Mexico City. (So much for everyone’s advice not to drive at night in Mexico.) Bob wasn’t able to drive, so he tried to sleep in the back of B Hole, his Volkswagen bus, of which he was very protective. If you got above 60 mph, he could tell by engine pitch, and he would shout out to slow down. Of course, we wanted to spend as little time driving as possible, so there would be frequent shout outs. Along the way, we stopped by a field to pee. All of a sudden there was screaming, as Joanne had squatted on a cactus in the dark. Thanks to Kathy Welling and Chuck Hutchinson, Joanne was relieved of the cactus spines. Of course, with all the commotion, Bob roused from the back of the bus. When he found out that it was just a cactus and not a rattlesnake, there were recriminations about too much noise. Off we went again, arriving at the border at dark. At a clinic in Texas, Bob found out that he didn’t have a hernia and that all he needed were some little pills that would cause “some action” a little later. Having risked life and limb and cactus spines driving through the Mexican night, it’s no wonder that later on we came up with some descriptive phrases for Bob’s ailment, such as “Hernia, my ass” and “Bob sure had a shit-eating grin on his face when he came out of that McAllen clinic” and “Next time, we’re going to make sure that Bob drinks the water.”

Beauty and Ecology

By Jenny Ramstetter '81

I thought I might do better today if I started by thinking of someone else’s words instead of my own. In January, I began Robin Wall Kimmerer’s book Braiding Sweetgrass, and then I found Gathering Moss, by the same author, on Bob’s bookshelf.

In her essay, “Asters and Goldenrod,” Kimmerer reflects on her journey as a botany graduate student. She finds brilliant goldenrod in flower growing alongside its perfect counterpart the “full-on royal purple,” New England Aster. She writes, “Purple and gold .  .  . a regal procession in complementary colors. I just wanted to know why. Why do they stand beside each other when they could grow alone? Why this particular pair? . . . is it only happenstance that this magnificence of purple and gold end up side by side? What is the source of this pattern? Why is the world so beautiful?  . . . It seemed like a good question to me. But my adviser said, ‘It’s not science.’” I knew Bob would have had a much more interesting response for a student who asked those questions, and I thought of how Bob shaped my life as a scientist and as a person.

I grew up mostly in Colorado, but my mom and brother and I moved to California for two years. As an 8-year old, I lived two streets away from Bob in Isla Vista as he began grad school at UCSB, though I can’t say if our paths ever crossed. Along the beach, I explored tide pools most every day, and on the bluffs above I made flutes from the non-native bamboo stalks. I watched in amazement as monarchs migrated in an undulating wave along the coast in groves of eucalyptus. On school trips, we went to the Santa Ynez Mountains and, according to my teacher, we saw one of the last California Condors flying free at that time. Back in Colorado, I returned to feeding grasshoppers blades of grass, rescuing baby birds, having garter snakes wrap around my arm, and chasing robins from the worms they were stretching from the soil. From elementary school through high school, I was fascinated by any living critter, but talked myself into the idea that I wasn’t good at science or math, and most of my science teachers did little to dissuade me of that notion. Instead of being a scientist, I would simply love the beauty in nature and leave its study to others. Ten years after my time along the Pacific coast, I headed east to Marlboro sight unseen. On my first day at the college, a VW van parked in front of the dining hall and filled with tropical plants and two parrots and Popcorn the dog piqued my interest. A day later I was on an Amtrak train to Montreal with the owner of that van and others here today so that we could ride our bikes the length of Vermont before starting the semester. On that bike ride from Montreal to Marlboro, we stopped along the road under the shade of trees I didn’t know and Bob picked up an acorn and asked many questions while admiring the acorn. I knew none of the answers, but I wanted to find out, and Bob’s awe and curiosity in a simple acorn were contagious.

These 40 years later, I’ve shared many moments of ecology and appreciation for life’s beauty with Bob including a desert biology field trip that ended in California. We went to the Santa Ynez mountains, and a large Coulter pine cone now lives in the science building from that trip. The last magical days of the field trip were spent on Santa Cruz Island off of the coast of Isla Vista hosted by one of Bob’s graduate school buddies and life-long friends; I thought back to when I stood on the beach as a kid looking out at Santa Cruz and wondering what treasures that island held. As with many of you, Bob was my teacher, mentor, colleague, and friend. I treasure it all, but I suppose I circle back to beauty most of all. A year ago April, my kids were on a Junior High class trip to Costa Rica, and I emailed Bob to tell him that they’d just seen a Resplendent Quetzal in the Monteverde cloud forest. Bob wrote back: “Yikes. I hope they understand what this boils down to: ‘The most spectacular bird in the western hemisphere,’ quoting Roger Tory Peterson.”

Bob saw beauty in spectacular birds and in the acorn. And he saw beauty in all of you and in a sweeping motorcycle ride. We will remain touched in both small and in life-changing ways by Bob. In moments when I might inspire or support family, friends, and students, I know it’s partly because of what I learned from Bob. Though it’s not a word he would use, I am blessed by all of you who knew Bob and cared for him and helped me so much during his illness and death. I am so grateful. I especially thank Brian and Senait and Zinabu who have lived with the burden of my sadness for many days and months now. In the past quarter century, the few times when Brian couldn’t fully comfort me, he would call Bob who would scoot over on his motorcycle, or car if need be. Bob would listen, usually make me laugh, and help me to figure out what to do next.

Now, I turn to all of you who have been touched by Bob, near and far and friends who couldn’t be here today. I know that the beauty of Bob’s life and our bonds together will help us all to care for each other and to care for the beauty of life around us just a bit more.

Toward Sicily

 By Joanne McNeil Hayes
 For Bob, July 2017

Sicilian heat rises
                  against red earth

inches toward buff clouds
                 like birds in open air.

What if passion is insecure,
                 playful, disheartened by silence?

If so, we turn to sunflowers
                 and love them in the shade or under water,

and when they dry to scrub and
                 blow listless in the wind,
                 we know that lives have passed us by.

We enter through a pastel sleep where
                 deep red moros hug the sky and

rain turns sunset a cobalt blue.




Poem for 3 Johns and a Bob

To come!

Arizona Visit

By Tim Tibbitts '80

I take some solace from remembering the last time I saw Bob in person. Not too many years ago, he took a solo spring break trip; flew to Phoenix, rented a snazzy motorcycle, and went on a road trip around Arizona. Toward the end of his trip, he spent a few days visiting in the tiny, remote town where I lived. I was amused, trying to reconcile the motorcycle fanatic with the man I first knew decades before. He was semi-retired, and still delving into new things with great passion. He was very happy and relaxed. We went for a few jaunts into the surrounding desert (not on the motorcycle) and spent a lot of time talking, back at the house. The morning he headed back to Phoenix, he rolled out the driveway in his silver motorcycle “moon suit,” waved, and flashed that big grin. 30 years after being his student, I was still—in fact more—impressed with his unique character. He wasn’t just a gifted teacher and brilliant biologist. He was also articulate, learned, and had great integrity, curiosity, humor, discipline, mischief, loyalty, and compassion. He improved the world with his time here.


Eyes for the Natural World

By Janet Humphrey '81

Bob was my professor and lifelong friend. I know I’m one of many whose life he changed in a most profound way, infusing it with his intelligence, spirit, wit and vision. I got to housesit for him one summer while he went out on the desert trip with John Hayes and a group of students, and cared for his menagerie‚dogs, birds, fish, roving turtle (and rubber snake on the greenhouse floor that I initially assumed was an actual pet!). I told him many times that he had given me the eyes with which to see the natural world. He taught me how to look at ecosystems and how to be inquisitive, and I carried that with me wherever I traveled. I’d usually email him for his thoughts on each different environment I visited. In a typical response, Bob said of Ecuador, “I went to the Galapagos with buddies and had a brief stop on the mainland...including a short trip to a nectar feeding reserve at 11.5 K feet. Fuchsias in bloom and saber-billed hummers with bills as long as the body.” He never stopped learning and teaching. I am so grateful to have known him and privileged to have called him my friend.


Naturally Gifted Teacher

By Peter Niewiarowski '84

When I came to Marlboro in 1979, I didn’t even know what Biology was. Then I took a class from Bob Engel, and I never looked back. I heard somebody say recently that Bob was a master teacher. It’s a massive understatement. He was a deeply and naturally gifted teacher. He blended brilliance, passion, empathy, comedy, and curiosity into every meeting, class or otherwise, that I had with him. As a mentor to me during the stages of my plan of concentration, he treated me as a colleague by critiquing my ideas. But he also nurtured me by always displaying his confidence in me and in the notion that I could make a substantive contribution to our knowledge about the world. I saw him do this with all his students, and it is clear he built a legacy on it. Bob and his co-conspirator John Hayes were chief architects (helped by other faculty and student sidekicks) of the academic climate that pervaded the science building. They were at once playful, serious, pranksterish, rigorous, humble, and opinionated. When I left Marlboro, I came to understand that this academic environment was uniquely Marlboro …an environment that Bob built, but one that also built Bob. I feel extraordinarily lucky to have been quite accidentally drawn in to it.



No Sharing

By Tom Good '86

I was fortunate enough to be able to go on several Marlboro field trips, including trips to the desert southwest, the southeastern U.S. (Okefenokee, Everglades, etc.), the Yucatan Peninsula, and interior/central Mexico – a.k.a “the Campsite”). These were formative trips for a budding biologist, and spending time with Bob and John Hayes (and John MacArthur!) was invaluable.

A favorite Bob/trip memory of was on the southeastern U.S. ornithology trip. We would often purchase lunch fixings (tortillas, refried beans, canned chilies, etc.) for our roadside lunches. A joke on the trip was that Bob would fend off others from his lunch supplies during these roadside lunches with a curt “no sharing.” Later in the trip, I snapped a pic (top) of a salad bar at a restaurant dinner stop to share at our traditional post-trip slideshow. Its inclusion was ironic and funny, as Bob was an inveterate sharer of knowledge (right), which in the field as in the classroom, was extensive. I never see a restaurant sign prohibiting sharing without cracking a smile and thinking of Bob. The Mexico trip also produced pics of Bob’s photogenic sides (below).































A Really Rare Warbler

By Dianna Noyes '80

When we learned of Mallory’s death and Bob’s diagnosis last summer, I was in Umbria, Italy, for the first time, looking out at a view that could have been one of Mallory’s paintings. When we learned of Bob’s death, we were in the desert on the outskirts of Tucson, Arizona—another new environment for me, but one that Bob knew and loved so well. In the short intervening months, I only saw Bob once, when I took him to a radiation appointment in Keene. We talked of many things, wandering around from subject to subject—mutual friends, birds, Italy, the Catholic Church, pedophiles, age, motorcycles. On the way home, we stopped at the Chelsea Royal for Mayan chocolate ice cream cones. We sat on a bench out back, overlooking the marshy field. It was a stunning late summer day. Red-winged blackbirds chortled on cattails. A little breeze wafted through. I looked at Bob, already diminished, already starting to disappear, and thought, “this may be the last time I see you, spend time alone with you. I’d better try to make you laugh,” for that is one of the things I loved most about Bob—his laugh. So I said something, and here it came, that muffled deep in the chest wave of glee that rose in pitch through his sternum and up his throat to come out his mouth in a little burst of delight and surprise. The thing that I did not say, and wish I had, was “thank you.” Thank you, Bob, for letting me believe in my nascent birding days that the brown creeper I saw in January was really a rare warbler. Thank you for pointing out my first redstart; for confiding in me that you weren't confident about presenting a talk on moss and lichens; for teaching generations of students whether we were in your classes or not; for the love, patience, and attention you bestowed upon us; and for the laugh that I can still hear and will always treasure.

A Uniquely Social Animal

By Tim Tibbitts '80

There are so many memories of Bob, it is hard to pick just a few. The breadth of his knowledge and skills as a biologist and teacher are legendary, and perhaps others have better stories than me. A different aspect on him occurred to me. You and another person or two made comments about Bob’s occasional somewhat antisocial moods. He even admitted as much, in some of his later visits and correspondence with me. But we all change with age, including characteristics like that. My memories of Bob from my time as a student, and for many years later, are that he was a uniquely social animal. He was very comfortable, very adept with making new acquaintances, and putting people at ease. I saw this in both his professional work and his social interactions. Examples:

His classroom technique was typically playful, mischievous and engaging. But absolutely thorough. He made learning an intellectual game. He effectively seduced people into learning and into gaining his passion for biology. When he made demands on students, it was not intimidating, it was encouraging. He could put you at ease at the same time he put you on the spot. 

His persona out in the larger world was instructive and set an example for others. I remember visiting a small limestone cavern on private property in Texas (?) on a desert biology field trip. Our “guide” was a youngish woman who clearly was not much educated, nor very sophisticated. It was clear Bob knew a lot more about the geology, hydrology, and biology of limestone caverns in Texas than she did. But he was the epitome of grace and tact in talking with her as he taught us. He put her at ease, complimented her sincerely, and had yet another fan by the time we departed.

There was our stay at the university field station on South Water Caye off the coast of Belize in January 1980. The “university” was a large wood frame field house on an otherwise uninhabited spit of sand and coral rock. Two wonderful matronly Caribbean ladies cooked our meals and maintained the house. I remember lying in my sleeping bag on the wooden deck, trying to get to sleep, and hearing Bob and those ladies laughing it up down in the kitchen for what seemed like hours. Almost every night. They had very little in common with Bob, but there he was, gregarious and socializing and making new friends for himself and us.

In later years, I sometimes joined (or was joined by) Bob and John Hayes as they led subsequent desert biology field trips. I was impressed at how they continually improved their teaching. A lot of that was technical, but a lot was also the evolution and maturing of personalities. With time, Bob seemed even more relaxed and personable with his students and with the people they encountered on such trips. I remember them joining me and some coworkers on projects, and Bob was instantly familiar and casual with my peers. Even more, he drew them into discussions for the group, making them feel like they contributed to the teaching value of the outing. He didn’t have to do that, and he didn’t do it to be politic. He did it because that was his nature.

On one of his last visits with me in AZ, Bob did come alone, completely non-social, just him on his rented motorcycle. I was amused, as he fussed and tinkered with the bike in my carport. I marveled at how the Bob I first knew 30 years earlier (!) had morphed into a motorcycle enthusiast wearing what he called his full-body “moon suit.” He told me about how, several days earlier, he had gone into a small restaurant in rural eastern AZ wearing that moon suit. That is a geographic area I knew to be very suspicious of strangers, and people who “look different.” The story he told was hilarious, self-deprecating, wise and gracious. That was probably the last time I saw him. As always, he still gave off a glow.

Best Evidence Available

By Jim Tober

In 1983, when Bob was facing treatment for his leukemia, he walked me down the hall to his office where he had drawn a couple of lines on the blackboard—one descending and one ascending, with time on the horizontal axis. 

What exactly the lines represented, I don’t recall, but clearly this graph summarized for Bob what was the best evidence available in deciding whether and when to undergo a marrow transplant. Waiting long enough but not too long was, I think, the bottom line.

Bob was an uncommonly good naturalist and teacher, clearly explaining complex realities with a personal observation, a succinct account of the most recent scholarship, a humorous story. And, he was a first-rate scientist, committed to rigorous, fact-based analysis, whether applied to to the marine rocky intertidal zone (his Ph.D. subject), proper motorcycle gear (a more recent passion), or his own highly consequential medical decision-making.

Forward to 1994/95 and the memorable field trip to Mexico and points south. I recently found my photographs from that trip which, true to form, feature too many images of Mayan sites and not enough of my fellow travelers. But, there are Mallory and Bob, sitting together looking out over the ocean near Tulum. I thought at the time I should capture that lovely scene, which is all the more lovely now.






Fence Lizard on Her Face

By Joanne McNeil Hayes
Sceloporus occidentalis, for Bob


Fence lizard sunning on her face

sounds like a worrisome thing

but with sweet pearly eyes and

soft sticky bare feet

it clings to her cheek for a rest.


So there is no need to hide

from a critter dressed in

yellow striped pants

and sparkling blue vest

who stops by for just a brief visit.


Forests with Bob

By John Hayes

Jenny Ramstetter, in teaching Forest Ecology in spring 2018, asked some of us if we had photos of Bob in various forests. Most of us, unfortunately, just had slides from bygone pre-digital days. But that got me thinking about forests and some other habitats I had visited with Bob.

For Bob, the more diversity the better. Perhaps many would recall Bob's hand-typed desert plant lists. On most desert trips, we made it to the Mojave, but on some we didn't. But you can bet we spent more time in the species-rich Sonoran than in the other deserts. Something about those summer monsoons and winter rains.... But Bob was also fascinated by oak diversity in Big Bend National Park, Texas, in the Chihuahuan Desert. Then, when he spent a sabbatical on the Mexican plateau, he worked with a guy who was a reputed expert on oaks. Ultimately, I don't think he was impressed with the guy’s knowledge of the oaks. Bob said that because of hybridization the taxonomy was a mess.

I know that Bob was in awe of the irregularly flowering dipterocarp forest of the Borneo lowlands, as in the Danum Valley conservation area, with its 200 foot-tall trees. I have a slide somewhere of Bob and Kermit standing in front of one of those enormous buttressed trees.

He was also awestruck by the fauna diversity of the African savannah, as we saw in Namibia's Etosha National Park (Jenny was there).

Of course, who wouldn’t be awed by the redwood forests, but on our few field trips in that area, Bob made sure we visited Los Padres National Forest above Santa Barbara to see its incredible plant diversity, especially the manzanitas.

And I know Bob and John MacArthur were intrigued by warbler diversity in the Appalachian forests. Was it really nearly 60 years ago that Robert and John MacArthur published that Ecology article on bird species and foliage-height diversity?

Is there anywhere that didn't intrigue Bob? I think that you could have set him down anywhere on the planet, and he would have known where he was. How could one person know so much about so many plant and animal species?