Bass Institute Hosts First Visiting Professional: Dr. Dennis Liu

Bass Institute Hosts First Visiting Professional: Dr. Dennis Liu

The Bass Institute recently hosted its first visiting professional, Dr. Dennis Liu, VP of Education at the E.O. Wilson Biodiversity Foundation. During his three days at Govs, Liu visited classes, dined with students and teachers, met with the Environment Club, and stayed in the residential suite in the Bill ’67 and Peter ’71 Alfond Coastal Research Center—the first visiting professional to do so. 

“When I thought about who we might invite as our first visiting professional, I wanted it to be a person who could speak to different academic disciplines,” said Director of the Bass Institute Erika Mitkus. Mitkus is familiar with Dr. Liu’s work, having attended his presentations on science and literature in the past, and immediately thought of him when she was brainstorming with a colleague about a visiting professional who could enhance the conversation in her English elective. Mitkus shared, “I reached out to science faculty, and their response was overwhelmingly positive.”

Liu is an internationally recognized expert in science education. He studied zoology at the University of Wisconsin and earned his PhD in Biology from the University of Oregon. Liu has a passion for explaining diverse scientific concepts to diverse audiences. He has been at the E.O. Wilson Foundation for six years and believes deeply in the Foundation’s mission to reimagine the way humans care for the Earth. The Foundation’s signature program is the Half-Earth Project, which boldly claims that we must protect half the earth to save global biodiversity. Liu aims to build a network of teachers and students interested in reversing the extinction crisis and protecting biodiversity.

“I love working with teachers, who are often underappreciated because there is a built-in system and a natural multiplier in their work. If you reach a teacher early in their career, the amplification factor is about 80 students per year,” said Liu.

Liu visited both English and science classes during his time at Govs, including Monica Kirschmann’s Human/Nature Literature class (Junior/Senior English elective), Louise Nelson’s Marine Science class, Bert McLain’s Science and Storytelling class, and Jamie Brandt’s Honors Environmental Science class. Liu asked Kirshmann’s students to examine the relationship between text and images as it related to the graphic novel adaptation of E.O. Wilson’s novel, Naturalist. In Brandt’s class, Liu led a mapping activity that challenged students to choose areas in the United States and Massachusetts to put into protection for biodiversity. 

On Thursday evening, Liu presented to the Environmental Club and talked about reasons to care about biodiversity, including the connection between human activities and ecosystem degradation. 

“Humans have a poor understanding of nature—we have much to learn. We are dependent on a healthy, functioning ecosystem,” said Liu. “The rapid decline in biodiversity is at a critical point, and we’re seeing a sharp decline in common birds, insects, and other invertebrates. Insect decline is the most concerning; they run everything,” added Liu.

He also believes connecting with the natural world kindles a wonder and respect for all living things. “All species that exist now are the result of thousands or millions of years of evolution that have resulted in the ‘best of the best’ species in their individual niches,” said Liu. He also stressed the importance of local action and encouraged the E Club to focus on making positive changes at Govs: “Even small, local changes can add up to a big difference; look at the place you are in, it’s an amazing setting—you should focus on the nature here—biodiversity is key.”

Liu offered some parting wisdom: “My key message is we are A PART of nature, not APART from nature. I want to plant a seed that encourages students to always think about the natural world.” 

Mitkus reflected on Liu’s visit: “I think that is one of the benefits of having a visiting professional. Most students think of their career as a linear path. It’s important for them to hear from adults about the factors that influence them in how they got to where they are now.” Through the Bass Institute, Governor’s looks forward to hosting many professionals on our campus in the future.