An Academic Reckoning: Meet Dane Ward BS ’09 PhD ’13
By Gina Myers
September 8, 2021
When asked about the importance of mentorship, Assistant Teaching Professor of Biodiversity, Earth and Environmental Science Dane Ward, PhD, apologizes in advance for what he says will be a soapbox moment.
“I want to help students learn how the system operates. There’s going to be hurdles for students because they don’t know they exist. And maybe that hurdle is the one that keeps them from moving forward,” he begins. “But why is the hurdle there? If I have the capacity to remove it, I should remove it or help the student circumvent it. Why would we want to keep people out of doing really good things for the world and for society? I think we need more people in there, so I’m going to try to tear down walls and move around barriers and hurdles as much as I can for our students.”
For Ward, this is about expanding access for all students to the field, building equity in education and creating equity-based conservation biology and environmental science—something he is calling on his fellow professors to work toward.
“The mentor has to be the one doing the work,” he says. “We are here to build the next generation of scientists—that will be our greatest legacy. It’s not going to be a paper we wrote about some animal or plant somewhere. It’s going to be cultural change.”
Ward was recently named Outstanding Mentor of the Year by Pennoni Honors College for guiding two STAR Scholars, Mikayla Traini and Liz Otruba, through their research during the Fall/Winter 2020-2021 term. Otruba, who is an environmental science student now in her second year, notes that it was a strange year due to the pandemic, but throughout her work, Ward was extremely supportive.
“He understood that we weren’t going to be able to focus on science 100% of the time because of everything going on. He was very supportive through all of that,” she explains. “And he treated us like scientists—not just like some students that are working in his lab. He wanted us to have our own ideas and try to make up our own methodology and answer our own questions. I think part of what makes a good mentor is pushing a student but also being there to support them through the path that they’re taking.”
The mentorship skills Ward has developed, along with his ideas around access and equity-based environmental science, are shaped by his own experiences as a student at Drexel.
Feeling Like a Scientist
Ward says he wasn’t supposed to go to grad school or even to college—trade school and the military were the more likely outcomes for people who attended his high school. Encouraged by a counselor, he decided to apply to two colleges and wound up at Drexel because he could commute from home by train. With his blue-collar background, Ward didn’t see a career in science in his future, but that changed thanks to a few of his undergraduate professors.
James Spotila, PhD, now an emeritus professor, offered his students a research opportunity to study leatherback sea turtles in Costa Rica. At first, Ward dismissed the idea as too expensive. However, he was working two jobs throughout undergrad and was able to save the money to go on the week-long trip.
Spotila warned the students that the turtles were in decline, so they may see only a few during the week. However, as they walked the beach each night searching for the turtles—which are easy to spot because they are about the size of a VW—they did not see any. The final night of the trip, they weren’t going to go out again because of an early flight, but Ward wanted to try one more time—and they finally saw some.
“We saw three of them nesting. It’s an absolutely bonkers experience for anyone who wants to study animals. It’s one of the rarest animals, and you’re there kind of holding the sand from collapsing on the eggs while you’re counting them. Just getting to hear this animal breathe is remarkable,” Ward explains. “It was a significant moment. It made me think I could do this.”
The second professor whom Ward cites as important to his development is Emeritus Professor Susan Kilham, PhD, who convened a University-wide climate change course that was comprised of a large lecture with smaller group meetings. At the end of the semester, the professors who led the smaller group meetings shouted out students who did really well. Ward says, “Dr. Kilham acknowledged my work, and that little bit of acknowledgement was really earth-shattering in the way it made me feel as a potential scientist.”
That moment has stuck with him. “We want our students to feel engaged, and we want them to feel like scientists. But I didn’t really feel like one until that moment.”
As an undergraduate, Ward also started working with Walt Bien, PhD, who would eventually be his PhD advisor. Bien created a suite of opportunities for Ward that allowed him to do research in the Pine Barrens and further see himself as a scientist.
“Dr. Bien, having been a high school teacher for decades, taught me a great deal about teaching, field work and the logistics of science,” says Ward. “I really owe my ability to exist in this academic world to these three amazing scientists.”
Into the Field/Into Community
One of the ways Ward helps his undergraduate students to feel like scientists is by exposing them to field work early and often—even if this means that some might hold a grudge against him over ruined shoes. “I tell students, ‘You’re going to get muddy, you’re going to get dirty, and you’re going to be uncomfortable. It might be 90 degrees outside,’” Ward explains. “But I think some students may have missed that and weren’t prepared for their first field trip into a marsh in South Philly.”
Ward sees doing research with students as their education. He emphasizes that he is there to serve the students—not the other way around. He is also thinking deeply about his relationship to the communities he works in. Considering how environmental scientists can apply issues of equity, inclusion and social justice to their practice could significantly change the future of the field, and it has already changed the way that Ward approaches his own practice.
“My brand of environmental science is very people-focused. I think as an undergrad I really thought humans were the bad thing—that humans and the environment should be decoupled as much as possible because we tend to just destroy things. It turns out that’s not the case,” he says. “Every question I ask, whether it’s about a snake, a turtle or a butterfly, already has a pre-existing community built around it. Not only is it folks who care about that thing, it’s folks who live with that thing. So environmental science is innately place-based and community-based.”
Using this place-based and community-based approach, one current student-led research project in his research group is focusing on greenspace availability for school-aged children. Led by environmental science major Akilah Chatman, the urban ecology project surveys what greenspace is available at schools in Philadelphia and looks at what opportunities are available for the students to engage with that space. Ward explains, “When we do find that there is a tree on a school lot, we can maybe help facilitate discussions with teachers about how we might be able to incorporate that tree in lessons. Can the students get out of the classroom to look at the tree, touch the tree, sit under the tree and think about what the tree might be experiencing?”
Similarly, additional projects attempt to engage Philadelphia high school students in community-based science. Through these experiences practicing being a scientist, it becomes more likely that the students can identify with the possibility of someday being a scientist.
Expanding access, engagement and diversity in STEM is both important to Ward and essential for the field to move forward and address today’s environmental issues. “Our field has really suffered for how white-male supremacist it has been for so long. It has been very sexist, very imperialistic in the way scientists engaged in research or exploration around the globe, and it is long overdue for a change,” says Ward.
“Our problems aren’t ones that any one person or ideology can solve. If I am going to say that every environmental problem is place-based and community-based, then we need to have folks who come from those communities. When we’re going to engage in any problem-solving, we should be there as support figures for the community members—not as folks who just happen to have the money to get off a plane and start collecting data.”
To further illustrate the importance of diversity, Ward points to the lessons scientists have learned from studying ecology. “We tend to see the more diversity we have, the more functional capacity we have—the more resilient our system is and the more stable it is over long periods of time.”