Ways and Means

Dr. Nathan Means is not your typical biology professor.

Dr. Nathan Means is outstanding in his field - and so are his cookies.

Fifth in a series of stories about Columbia College innovations in the sciences and science teaching.

The third-floor St. Clair Hall office of Dr. Nathan Means, assistant professor of biology, doesn’t look like a typical biology professor’s office.

There are no brightly colored DNA/RNA charts; no posters of the life cycle of the leopard frog; no test tubes, beakers, microscopes or exotic bugs stuck on pins.

Instead, there’s a shiny metal breadbox full of snacks. "Want one? Help yourself!" says Means, who bakes his own peanut-butter-chocolate-chip, oatmeal-with-dried-cherries, black-walnut and white-chocolate chip cookies. There’s an ancient battered Webster’s dictionary supporting his monitor at eye level. A bowling ball props open his door. Pictures of two of his dogs (deceased) are in a bicycle-wheel picture frame.

Not your average professor

Two minutes into a conversation and it’s clear Means is in no way typical.

He talks about watching TV ("Baywatch" and "Knight Rider" were popular) in the mountain Guatemala village in which he served as an agricultural extension Peace Corps member. Of biking 104 kilometers on mid-Missouri gravel roads ("Rural mid-Missouri is absolutely gorgeous") in four hours. Of his childhood in Columbia, Mo.; of his father; of the politics of fast food; of the current international commodities crisis; of the joy of cooking.

"It is so relaxing to cook, bake and experiment with food," says Means. "Just think: never in human history have people had access to such a diverse amount of foods. So why not experiment? Why do so many people eat the same stuff and never experiment with food? We eat like five different animals when there are hundreds! We eat like five different grains and there are hundreds! The list goes on and on."

Means, 37, was born and raised in Columbia and is the scion of a retired Air Force bombardier and navigator who found work with MFA Oil. His father suffered a heart attack when Means was only 7 — a death sentence in those days. Doctors said his father had only five years to live, so the stereotypical nuclear family roles were reversed as his dad stayed home and mother went to work.

"And that was great for me. As a little kid, you want to be around Mom all the time, but when you get a little bit older, you want to see what Dad’s doing, do all that cool Dad stuff. My Dad was mechanically inclined, and in the summer we’d go to these crazy auctions, get a motor off a lawn edger, put it on a bike frame and make a motorbike." Means credits his father with instilling in him a deep and abiding love of science.

And, like Means, his father defied all predictions, undergoing multiple angioplasties and an experimental surgery and living 30 more years. His father died in the spring of 2008. "I will always respect and admire him," says Means. “He had a tremendous will to live.”

What, me teach?

Means graduated with a bachelor's degree in science from Southwest Missouri State University (now Missouri State University), Springfield, Mo., in 1996. He spent two years helping Guatemalan mountain farmers manage pesticides and herbicides, alternative crops and bridge building. He then returned to Columbia to pursue his master's degree in science and horticulture. He graduated from the University of Missouri in 2002. He received his Ph.D. from the university in 2004 in soil, environmental and atmospheric science.

He then began looking for a job in Columbia. His graduate education did not emphasize teaching, and he had always seen himself in research. So when Means applied and was hired for a visiting instructor position with Columbia College, he discovered he loved being on the other side of the classroom. He currently teaches botany, microbiology, environmental science and other biology classes so well that he has been named Outstanding Faculty Member of the Year by Campus Life.

Says William Gage Ryan, a biology major who took classes with Means: "I feel he’s a great example of someone who successfully balances academia and the real world. He doesn’t just explain a theory, he shows you a real-world application. For instance, he took the class to Capen and Rock Bridge parks [in Columbia], and we got to see real-world applications of proper urban planning. It can be kind of dry in the classroom. He made it come alive."

Man of the soil

Means has gone farther afield, however, teaching biology and environmental science at the Guantanamo Bay campus as part of the Visiting Scholars program. Besides the dedication of the sailor-scholars, what impressed him most? "The iguanas,” he says.
A sign advising of a ‘Iguana Crossing’ on one of the main roads on the U.S. Naval Base. Photo from CNN.com
"They have been hunted to extinction on the rest of the island for their meat and are considered part of the ecosystem and protected at the base. But come time to grill dinner, they are just the ugliest, most aggressive beggars I’ve sever seen. They come right up and if you don’t throw rocks at them, there goes your dinner."

Back home, Means says there are many issues that need to be taken very seriously.

"Sometimes you need to challenge students, to throw controversial topics out there," he says. "Like water quality, for instance, or global population growth. You ask people exactly where their water comes from, what happens to the water you flush, what are we going to do if the world population keeps expanding. The conversations can get heated."

When he’s not traveling or challenging students, Means researches and publishes. "Glyphosate and glyphosate-resistant crop interactions with rhizosphere microorganisms" ran in the Oct. 2009 European Journal of Agronomy. Glyphosate is a broad-spectrum herbicide initially patented by Monsanto in the 1970s under the tradename Roundup®. Current crop production relies heavily on transgenic, glyphosate-resistant plants, and Means and his co-author assessed the effects of glyphosate on soybean and maize in Missouri from 1997–2007.

The authors found that the frequency of certain root-colonizing bacteria changed significantly after glyphosate application during growing seasons in each year at all sites. The authors also suggest that root-exuded glyphosate may serve as a nutrient source for microorganisms.

Means has also manned a hazardous waste disposal booth at the Columbia, Mo., farmers market (“Some fabulous food there," Means says), conducted composting classes at the City of Columbia composting facility in Grindstone Park and helped build a rain garden in Rock Bridge State Park, just south of the city.

Columbia and the Midwest is a good place to live, says Means, but warns against complacency:

"I think we can feel too comfortable here in the Midwest," he says. "We are isolated from the sort of air pollution problems that afflict, say, Los Angeles." But, he says air pollution, water pollution, dwindling farm land and high fuel prices are growing concerns. "Or look at climate change. Let’s say we can turn it around, that we can reverse it. Who’s to say it won’t happen again? That the same problems will return no matter what we do? As a species we are horribly intolerant of temperate change; a few degrees in either direction has spelled doom for entire species. And the climate will change no matter what we do. That’s certain. So why are we building an infrastructure based on the climate we have now?"

Tough questions with no easy answers.

Meanwhile, Means is baking more cookies ...


Anonymous said...

I had Dr. Means for just one class at CC ( enviromental science) and it was actually an interesting class. Even though I only had him for one class, he would ask me how everything was goin even after I had been done with the class was done for a couple years. great guy

Anonymous said...

Dr. Means was a great professor. He really made science interesting and made going to class everyday enjoyable. I decided to not sell my Environmental Science book back because I figured that I had learned so much from him that there had to be more useful stuff in there. Thanks a ton Nate!