Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world

by | November 29, 2011 4:04 pm

by KATELYN MOORE

   When someone meets Dr. Breana Simmons for the first time, she is

usually asked one question above all others: “Why here?”

   “Everyone from the lady at the power company to the DMV asks how

I got to Swainsboro. I’ve been all over the world and I’ve worked

with all these famous people, and everyone wants to know why I’m

here,” she says. “I like it here! This area of the world is my

favorite part. I like the climate, I like the agriculture, I like

the industry, I love the people and the culture. To me, the

Southeast in general is a big cultural hug. It doesn’t get any

warmer and friendlier than Georgia.”

   Dr. Simmons is definitely one who appreciates the warmth of

Georgia, especially as she spent four years of her life doing

research with the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Station in

McMurdo, Antarctica.

   “I had heard of that research and had never been interested in

it nor wanted to go to the Antarctic, because it is really cold

down there and I don’t like the cold,” she says, “But working in

the Antarctic was one of the most amazing experiences I’ve ever

had, and I liked it so much, I went back four times.”

   Raised outside Detroit, Mich., Dr. Simmons attended a large high

school and was, by her words, “always very science-y and art-y.”

Upon graduation from high school, she immediately enrolled in

Olivet College in Olivet, Mich.

   “I was ready for college at age five,” she says. “College was

something I did really well and was the thing I was good at.”

   She explains that she majored in art until she got her first

A-.

   “I switched to science because it was easier. I knew I could be

the top of my class in science, but I knew there was no way I was

going to be the best artist,” she says. “I couldn’t handle being

second best at something.”

    Most people do pretty much the opposite during their collegiate

career, but Dr. Simmons was definitely not one to shun a work load,

double-majoring in environmental science and communications with a

minor in biology. She completed her bachelor’s degree in four

years, with summers off, while holding between two to four jobs at

any given time, being an active member of a sorority, playing two

sports, acting as a Residence Assistant, working as a DJ at the

local radio station, was crowned Homecoming Princess and spoke at

graduation.

   “Whenever I hear my students complain that it is impossible, I

tell them that it is not,” she says. “The thing that I can offer

them is that this is what I was really good at, and I hope to help

them be good at it, too.”

   After completing her bachelor’s degree, she applied to five

graduate schools. “None of them accepted me,” she explains. “I did

some crying and then went to visit a professor at Michigan State

who needed someone to run the Bug House, a kindergarten through

12th grade learning facility based on entomology.”

   While working there, she won a grant to do some work on golf

courses as her graduate project, which is where she got interested

in the “little things that were living in the soil.” After

graduation, she spoke with a professor at the University of Georgia

and wanted to work with him, but there was no grant money to bring

her on, so she took a job with Stanford University in Hawaii as a

research assistant identifying arthropods that came out of leaf

litter samples. A few months later, she received a call that UGA

had received some grant money to bring her on to do her PhD work

and have her as a teacher.

   She taught biology and soil ecology at UGA while working on her

graduate research in cotton. For the project, she managed a farm

near Athens and did research down in Coffee County.

   “It [Coffee County] was my first introduction to the Coastal

Plain of Georgia,” she explains. “I’ve been all over the world, and

this is my favorite part. I tell my students, who have mostly never

been out of this part, to travel, because they may find their

favorite part is somewhere else. I grew up in Detroit! How would I

have known that Southeast Georgia would be my favorite part of the

whole world?”

   When Dr. Simmons completed her PhD., she was offered a job with

Diane Wall at the McMurdo Long Term Ecological Research Station and

Colorado State University.

   “I asked my officemates if I’d be stupid to turn down a free

trip to the Antarctic, and of course, they said yes, so I took the

job,” she says.

   Getting ready for life on the bottom of the world was a

memorable experience for Dr. Simmons. “I was really scared and

wasn’t sure I was going to like it at all,” she explains. “You go

from Los Angeles, Calif. to Auckland, New Zealand; from Auckland to

Christchurch, NZ, and then you go to the CDC where they fit you

with your gear. There’s a bag of stuff with your name on it that

you have to try on: two pairs of thermal underwear, a fleece layer,

snow pants, a wind layer, a parka, six pair of wool socks, several

kinds of mittens and hats and your bunny boots, which are big

rubber boots that keep the cold out.

   “You try it all on, and mine was too small, so I asked if there

were no fat people in the Antarctic, and the lady there said, ‘No,

honey, the fat people are already there’ and I said, ‘Well, they

have my gear!”

   “I went to the Antarctic in gear that was a little too small. I

resembled, a little bit, that kid from A Christmas Story who

couldn’t put his arms down. Every time I sat, my snow pants

unzipped. Everything was too small,” she recalls. “Here I was,

going to a place that I didn’t want to with a team that I didn’t

know, in gear that was too small. You get packed on a cargo plane,

so you’re sitting in these little jump seats. Everyone knew

everyone, and here I was in the too-small gear not knowing anyone,

and I was terrified. We got to the Antarctic and it was just

unbelievable. You land on the ice runway and its just… The thing I

noticed first was that there was no sound. Second, there was no

smell. I ended up taking the job and devoting four years of my life

to Antarctic research.”

   “It is a really interesting place to study purely theoretical

ecology and I don’t think there’s another place where you can do

that,” she explains. “Nematodes and collembola are the largest

terrestrial organisms in that area. There are marine animals such

as penguins and several whale types, but the biggest land animal is

a millimeter in length.”

   For her work as a member of a United States Antarctic

expedition, she was awarded the Antarctic Service Medal of the

United States of America. This award is given by the National

Science Foundation in recognition of service to America and was

provided by Public Law 600 enacted by the 86th Congress in July

1960.

   After these credentials, it really is a wonder that Dr. Simmons

chose to join the staff of East Georgia College, rather than a

larger university. She currently teaches biology, microbiology, has

offered a course in environmental biology, and will teach evolution

in the Fall. She plans to teach ecology and conservation biology as

part of the upcoming four-year program, and hopes to get a research

program started.

   “I’d only ever worked at top-tier research universities, and

there is something very cold and impersonal about those places,”

she says. “I hadn’t been on campus here more than ten minutes, and

I felt really welcomed and the idea that I could bring my expertise

to a student who may have never been outside of the county was

really exciting.”

   “There’s a misconception that people that teach at small

colleges, in particular small two-year colleges, are there because

their family is there and they can’t move–well, my family isn’t

here. They’re there because they couldn’t get another job–I had

plenty of opportunities. That they’re there because they couldn’t

cut it in the real world–I’m a successful scientist. I’m here

because I want to be here. I want to teach these students,” she

says.

   She plans to teach more upper-level courses in the future, to

expand the courses the college can offer to students, and to do

more research with students. Her students currently have to do

research projects and simple experiments, and she has to bring in

someone to help judge them, because “I always turn into a proud

mama when they’re done.”

   “These students are capable of so much more than they have been

asked to do and it is marvelous to challenge them and to really

force them, sometimes against their will, to think harder about

something,” she says. “I want to help make EGC become a place where

people want to go because it is just so amazing.”

   “I fell in love with this entire area. The campus is gorgeous,

the people couldn’t be nicer, the students are an underrepresented

under-served group of students that come from a socioeconomically

depressed area that isn’t really served by places like UGA,” she

explains. “EGC seems like an oasis to me, a place I could go and

feel appreciated and useful.”

   Dr. Simmons hopes to inspire some kids who have never even

thought of what’s living in the soil to be amazed by what’s

living in the soil. “My poor microbiology students,” she

says. “I inadvertently turn them into germaphobes when I’m just

trying to teach them that we’re superheroes. We come into contact

with so much stuff, and on the whole, we’re hardly ever sick.”

   She lives for the “lightbulb moments,” when students realize

that what she is teaching is applicable in the real world. 

   “Biology is the study of life, and it can’t get more applicable

than that,” she says. “People say, ‘Oh, I’m not a science person,’

but by biological default, you are a science person. Who you are is

dictated by genes, and that’s biological, and the process goes on

from there, with things controlling looks and behavior. Some

students sleep through it, but I don’t teach for them. I teach for

the ones who are the History majors because they liked history and

then discovered that they really liked biology, or for the art

majors who think art is too hard.”

  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
  • Digging in the dirt at the bottom of the world
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