5 Questions: Dr. Gary Booth

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Dr. Gary Booth has been teaching at BYU since 1972. He teaches classes in biology, plant and wildlife sciences and Book of Mormon. He has an associate of science degree in zoology as well as three degrees — bachelor’s, master’s and Ph.D. — in entemology.

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You have been teaching at BYU since 1972. How do you sum up 40 years of teaching experience at the same school?

I would describe it as a journey of discovery. When I came here I didn’t have a single test tube in my lab. I gave up a million-dollar research lab at the University of Illinois, a big-time job where I had everything I ever dreamed of. But I felt like I wanted to come where there was more opportunity to teach. So, the discovery part was putting together a toxicology research lab and getting myself involved with undergraduates. Between those two, it was like this journey I was on. I was bringing undergrads into my lab, and from the undergrads came the graduate students. It was like a feeder program. … (The circle of learning) really describes it. What happens is you teach and you get kids excited about your teaching, then they want to come work in your lab. Then they get some research and come back and present it to the class, then they present it nationally or internationally. Then the whole thing cycles again.

Would it not have been the same at the University of Illinois?

BYU had more of an opportunity to teach undergraduates than I had at the University of Illinois. Illinois was about 90 percent research, 10 percent teaching. Here, it’s 70 percent teaching and 30 percent research. So, BYU essentially had the balance that I was after. I wanted students to be around me. Frankly, while I was on my post-doctorate at Illinois, I found out students were your bread and butter. … That’s where you get your work done.

Your students call you “funny” and “quirky.” Do you make it a goal to incorporate humor into your lectures?

It’s a soft yes. Yes because I think learning can be fun, and if it’s fun it’s going to bring a smile to your face for a couple of reasons. 1 – They’re going to find out they don’t know as much they thought they did, and 2 – they might feel how good it is to feel something new suddenly distill on them. And that’s what brings a smile to their faces. Occasionally, yes, I go dressed up as Yoda or Obi-Wan Kenobi and I do my thing and it’s great, but it’s all about learning. If you can teach principles by active learning with demonstrations, either theatrical or blowing up balloons, that to me is active learning, and that’s what makes me quirky.

Science isn’t generally a subject people associate with the gospel. How do you try to incorporate the gospel into your lectures?

Some of the kids say my biology classes are just as spiritual as their Book of Mormon classes. And the reason I think that happens is the passion I feel and the beauty and the balance of the creation. Everything is connected. … If the kids see that connection, they’re really studying the patterns of the Creator and some of the things that the Creator has used to put these organisms into place. That’s one of the reasons why students ask, ‘How can you teach organic evolution here? I thought that was a godless concept.’ And it’s just an explanation that biologists have to explain the diversity of life. Once they understand that, they understand (evolution) doesn’t detract from their  testimonies, but it’s an explanation that seems to fit the data out there. And I think when kids see that, they get really close to how the Lord actually did all of this and they think about it constantly and it brings them even closer, I think, to a spiritual experience of learning.

During your 40 years at BYU, have there been any experiences that stand out as “highlights”?

My students presented me with this $300 laser, it’s a Jedi laser. That was a moment they were trying to say thank you. I remember walking in to class with my colleague Paul Cox, we team-taught a course. All the students were standing on their chairs clapping and chanting, ‘Oh captain, my captain.’ I looked over at my colleague, and he was crying. I said, ‘Paul, why are you crying? They’re clapping.’ And he said, ‘No, no. You don’t get it. Don’t you know what that’s from? Ever see “Dead Poet Society”?’ That was kind of a neat moment.

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