Humans of Biology: Dr. Robert Dean

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Q: Most students know you as one of the professors of Bio 2290F, how would you describe yourself?

A: I’m a cook, I’m a parent, a guitarist and singer.

Q: How long have you been playing the guitar for, and how did you start?

A: Since 1968. I tried when I was about 12 or 13 since my mother gave me a guitar, but I didn’t know anything about it and I didn’t play it- it was unplayable. Actually, when I went to university I bought another guitar, and there was a great show on BBC television called Hold Down a Chord which was was run by a guy called John Pearse and he had three students and him showing stuff. There was a book you could buy from the local book store and you would watch them hold down a chord. That’s really how I got started.

Q: Are you self-taught?

A: That, and my friends [taught me]. Sometimes I go to dinner with a friend, or several friends that I’ve known for years and we will play together.

Q: What kind of style do you usually play?

A: It varies. One of the guys we play with is a retired English Professor but he is also a well-known jazz musician. I can’t play his stuff but he can play everything. The guide we play to is Irish and we play a lot of traditional British and Irish music. We play stupid stuff sometimes, and overall our style varies. We play a couple of hymns which I really like. there are some really cool songs in the Book of Common Prayer. We are not that adherent but we enjoy the music.

Q: Do you and your family play music together?

A: My wife is a professional violinist. During Christmas we have house band, and whoever comes plays with us. She is a great classical violinist but she also plays the fiddle very well, but unfortunately not often. We have four kids, and they all play instruments as well. My daughter was a very good violinist but I don’t think she’s touched it in several years but the boys play extremely well. They play guitar, and my youngest one plays the guitar and cello. He studied cello from age 4 to age 18 so he was pretty good. He also took classical guitar lessons from about 12-16 and then he was a pretty fine rock player.

Q: How did you start cooking?

A: I started cooking when I was a child because my father died when I was about two, and then my mother went away while I lived with my grandparents. When I was about 9 she was qualified and got us a place, so she taught me how to cook. And then I had a friend in university who was a real epicure you know, so he improved my cooking just by being around. I find cooking to be very soothing.

Q: What did you study in University?

A: I went in for zoology, we didn’t go into general science, we would go into something specific.

Q: A lot of students haven’t actually noticed this but you have your ear pierced, when and how did you get it?

A: It was my wedding ring! My wife gave it to me!

Q: So she proposed with it?

A: No no, she just gave it to me, took me out and had me pierced!

Q: If you could go anywhere in the world right now where would you go?

A: It is interesting because we are going to France in June for a month, and I haven’t been there for several years. Actually, that’s not true! Last year we were in Spain and we took a ferry from across the river and to France but it [France] sucked so we had a smoothie and went home. I told my brother who lives there and he regretted that it did not meet our expectations. So yeah, the last few years we have been to Spain for a month and I have a brother that lives there, but my wife wanted to go to France.

Q: Where have you travelled to so far?

A: Well, when I lived in England it was very easy to get to Europe so I have been to most West European countries. We  have also been to Ecuador and Peru.

Q: Out of all the places you have visited, which one is your favourite?

A: Barcelona, it’s magical. The second one would be Cusco which is in Peru, it’s just again totally another experience. They have polished copper stones, and it just glows kind of like gold.

Q: When you were a teenager what were you like and how did you eventually find your path that lead you to where you are too?

A: That’s an interesting question, I thought about that quite a bit. When I was a teenager I was quite anxious-I had a weird child hood-but when I was eleven I went to ground school, which was a selective school, and it was really difficult. There were all these people who were selected and some of these people were high performers. It was really difficult, there were no breaks in the sense that you were constantly being examined, constantly having anxiety of that kind of stuff and not doing that well. When I was 18, I was in England then and we were applying to universities. You could apply to six [universities], and at that time there was no guarantee that I would be getting in. By then I kind of got the hang of the academic stuff, I was accepted to three universities and went to one, and about two years in I kind of hit stride. I thought it was going to be really difficult because of my prior education experience but it turned out to be quite the opposite.

Q: How did you decide that you wanted to go into zoology?

A: What I was really interested in was flowers, and birds and trees and animals. I also avoided chemistry like the plague, in fact I even went to a university where I didn’t have to take chemistry. Oddly enough I was more interested by whole animals and stuff like that, and I was seduced by the chemistry and the molecular biology later.

Q: If you could give any advice to any students at Western right now, what would it be?

A: Relax, because it is not as serious as you think. I’m serious, because students feel a lot of anxiety. I think I have an idea about where it is possibly coming from, all this anxiety about the general economic status in society, people are anxious about whether they will be able to work and eat and stuff like that which is quite reasonable. And we lived in very different times, when I graduated, if all else failed I could have been a school teacher, which isn’t that bad. In fact, I had been accepted to a graduate program in education and I didn’t take it up, and there was no question that we would work and would work well, but that’s not the case anymore.

Q: You also taught many professors at Western as well, how does it feel seeing them grow up?

A: Haha do you know Dr. Maxwell? He was a TA in my course when he was a grad student. How does it feel? I came here in 1975, it’s been 43 years! At that time the politics in the department could be really brutal, people were empire builders and now it’s just colleagues. It is really easy to get along with people, and get stuff done in committees, it is a big change.

Dr. Robert Dean specialises in biology laboratory education at Western University. Read more about his research here.

Interviewers: Ushra Khan & Tyler Lue