Earlier this week I had the opportunity to sit down with Dr. Jeff Sigler for an interview. Dr. Sigler teaches my Earth as a Living Planet course. Like many students at Tulane, I took this course not because it was necessary the first choice on my list, but because it fulfilled my lab science requirement. But, this course has been a wonderful opportunity to push myself outside of my academic niche as an English major. I thought getting to know my professor, and how he became interested in the field of environmental science would help broaden my perspective.
My interview with Dr. Sigler focussed on his surprising academic path to the field of Environmental Science, the challenges, and opportunities that come along with teaching a course that many students take as a requirement. He provides words of wisdom on how to succeed in Earth as a Living Planet.
Q: Where are you from, and what was your career path prior to becoming an Earth as a Living Planet professor?
A: “I’m from Virginia, Central Virginia. I went to The University of Virginia thinking that I was going to be an art history major, so I was very interested in the humanities and had always been interested in science but wasn’t terribly enthusiastic with math and physics – the tools of science. I took a wide variety of classes. And basically took the right class at the right time with the right professor…and kind of got roped into environmental science.”
Sigler earned his degree in Environmental Science with a focus in Meteorology. “That’s my research background and part of my upper-level course load.” At Tulane, Dr. Sigler also teaches courses on air pollution, climate change, and sustainability, “just to, you know, get outside the comfort zone a little bit”, he says.
Q: What are some fun facts about you? What are your hobbies and interests?
A: “I like to play the guitar. My wife and I are animal lovers with six cats and a dog. We also book lovers who literally had our first date in a bookstore.”
Dr. Sigler enjoys running and swimming and used to play football. “I’m a sports fan…I pull for the Yankees and enjoy watching the Pelicans.” Sigler also loves history, and briefly worked as an archaeological excavator.
“Hobbies and interests pretty much take a back seat these days, though, because we have a six-year-old adopted son, Kellen”, he tells me.
Q: What is your favorite and least favorite thing about being a professor?
A: “My favorite aspect is finding really enthusiastic students who care about the environment – and I’ve found that there are a lot of them here. There’s an active Green Club, there are a lot of people who are interested in service-learning projects that have something to do with environmental protection or sustainability or carbon footprints…that’s one of the things that attracts people to Tulane. Part of the mission statement is public service, and environmental science and studies are just perfect for that, which makes it a good place to come and do the environmental teaching.
“Professionally, it’s always a challenge to be up to date in a very changing world and changing field. With things like climate change, we learn new things every day; there are a dozen relevant news articles when you wake up every morning. That’s challenging, I try to get out of my comfort zones. I don’t have a background in urban infrastructure or sustainability but I teach classes on it – that’s part of professional development and it’s part of offering courses that students are interested in. It’s something you have to do but it’s not easy.”
Dr. Sigler does on to admit that “it can be difficult teaching a course like Earth as a Living Planet. It’s fun, but it’s broad. There are a lot of people. Some people are really interested in it.” Then Sigler shakes his head and smiles while noting how “some people just need the credit and they’re not all that interested.”
Q: Many of your students take Earth as a Living Planet because it fulfills the lab science requirement for Tulane. Do you see this as a challenge or an opportunity?
A: “It’s both a challenge and an opportunity…the lecture material is quite basic. It’s not quantitative which is attractive to people. The lab is a work in progress…because it’s kind of rare to have an intro level enviro sci class that has a lab component attached to it. We’ve struggled with the lab and what we’ve done now is having the lecture act as more of an environmental science course and the lab is more science. It’s more quantitative…it’s meant to give students an introduction to what an earth scientist really does in a basic way.
“If you’re gonna be an earth scientist you’re gonna have to do some quantitative things – you’re gonna have to work with your hands a little bit. You’ll have to do graphs and work with numbers. So, we try to give people a broad indication of what they’re going to be doing if they major in environmental science or geology, and you can’t really sugar coat it. There has to be some quantitative component and that’s what the lab is really for. It is a challenge…It’s experimental, just like science is.”
Q: What advice do you have for students taking your course?
A:“I think that one of the traps that people fall into on Earth as a Living Planet is that they hear the name and think that it’s gonna be a walk in the park. The fact is that it’s not extremely difficult but you have to do something… “b” does not stand for breathing. You’re going to have to study and take notes if you’re going to get a B in the course. It’s a hard course to fail but it’s also not an easy course to get an A in.
“That expectations game is challenging. Putting powerpoints online is a little problematic because a lot of people think that’s all they need, and it isn’t enough to just download a powerpoint and look at it. But, that’s pretty basic stuff.”
“There’s not a magical secret to success in Earth as a Living Planet.”
Although I was bummed that Dr. Sigler couldn’t give me a magical key to success in his course, I learned after the interview he was the Executive Director of University of Virginia’s student-run magazine. Although he was on a similar liberal arts track as me, his academic career in environmental science was influenced by just one great course.
So yes, perhaps many of us dread fulfilling our lab science requirement, but maybe the mere exposure will open up an entirely new area of academic interest. As a student in Sigler’s class, I can say the subject matter is both interesting and relevant. And like he said, “b doesn’t stand for breathing.” So if you take notes and study, you’ll be just fine.