Jeb Byers sums up his teaching philosophy in three words: “Inspire then perspire!” And whether he’s lecturing in an introductory ecology class, leading a field lab experiment in marine biology, or mentoring an undergraduate conducting original research, Byers’s combination of engaging instruction with hands-on experience has an impact on the lives of his students.
Undergraduate Zachary Holmes was not sure that ecology was the right field for him—until he took Byers’s Ecosystems of the World Honors course. “I walked into that classroom unsure of what path I wished to follow, and walked out fully energized to submerge myself in ecological study,” he said.
According to his students, that’s not an uncommon experience. They consistently describe Byers as enthusiastic, knowledgeable, and eager for them to succeed. “His expectations of students were high,” said another student, Matt Foretich, describing an introductory ecology course, “but he made himself available to provide any resources or office hours that were necessary to help us meet his expectations.”
Byers gives highly engaging classroom lectures that are heavy on student involvement, even in large classes. Students may find themselves designing an ecological sampling program to address the existence of Bigfoot, or role playing as a pregnant barnacle trying to minimize the mortality of her planktonic larvae. Equally important, Byers’s influence extends outside of the classroom as he actively involves undergraduates in research. According to John Gittleman, dean of the Odum School of Ecology, the importance of Byers’s research mentoring can’t be overstated. “He has a remarkable gift for setting his students up for success. He has literally affected the career trajectories of dozens of students this way.”
He has supervised more than 36 undergraduates in directed research over the past 10 years and directed nine Honors theses. For eight years he served as an advisor with the National Science Foundation’s Research Experience for Undergraduates program at the Isles of Shoals Marine Laboratory, providing students with summer field experience. He’s currently participating in a proposal to involve faculty mentors and undergraduates across UGA in a new REU program exploring infectious disease. He has helped 11 undergraduates publish papers in peer-reviewed scientific journals, including one, Chelsea Wood, who was lead author of a paper in the Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences and won the Ecology Society of America’s Outstanding Undergraduate Student Research Award in 2008.
Besides his undergraduate teaching and mentoring, Byers serves as the Odum School of Ecology graduate coordinator, supervises seven Ph.D. students and two postdoctoral associates, and leads an active research program supported by grants from NOAA, NSF, and the Georgia Department of Natural Resources.
Byers attributes his choice of career, and his teaching philosophy, to his own experience as the student of an exceptional teacher. “Dr. William Kirby-Smith’s undergraduate course in Animal Diversity at Duke University heavily influenced my decision to become a scientist,” he said. “The structure of that course, and the enthusiasm it generated among the students, indelibly influenced my own teaching philosophy that a well-designed participatory course can infuse students with genuine enthusiasm for learning.”
Byers’s students tend to agree.