John Wilterding, Ph.D., professor of biology and chair of the Natural and Physical Sciences Department at Olivet College, was awarded the college’s prestigious Livingston Professorship at the 2014 Honors Convocation in April.
The professorship is the highest teaching honor presented to a full-time, tenured faculty member at Olivet. He was recognized for his exceptional abilities as an instructor as well as his commitment to the college’s mission.
But don’t expect Wilterding to take much credit for the honor. From his perspective, Olivet’s students, faculty and staff have all helped him become a great professor. “I’ve learned how to be a better teacher from them,” he added. “It wouldn’t happen by itself.”
Growing up on the Wisconsin side of Lake Michigan, he loved biology at an early age. “I wanted to be Ranger Rick when I was 7,” he said with a smile. His dad would encourage him at every turn. Whether it was birds or fish he was taking an interest in, almost invariably a book on the topic would follow.
“My parents valued the pursuit of knowledge,” said Wilterding. “There was a ‘richness of the mind’ in my home. Everyone was encouraged to follow their own interests and develop them. So it doesn’t surprise me that I would find myself in a situation where I value learning and want to share this with others. It’s always been about learning for me.”
Though he was the ‘go-to guy’ for college friends who needed help with their biology homework, he started teaching actual college courses by the time he was 23. There hasn’t been a semester since where he wasn’t teaching something in the sciences.
In the classroom, his love of learning translates into excitement for teaching.
Before each class, he thoughtfully considers what has and hasn’t worked in the past – refining parts of the curriculum, and sticking to the things that work well. His motivating factor: believing he can have a profound effect on how his students see the world.
“A person is somehow changed through the process of learning,” he added. “I get really excited about learning, and I try to bring that into my classrooms. Higher education is about lighting a fire for our students and hopefully, inspiring them to follow their own passions… much as my parents did for me.”
So what lights Wilterding’s fire after all these years? During the summer months, it’s his studies on moth biodiversity. In fact, his research collection now contains thousands of species – chiefly from Michigan and Wisconsin – which he uses in his assessment of native biodiversity in Michigan. “I’ve loved studying biodiversity around the Great Lakes since I was a boy; it’s part of my DNA,” he said.
In the late ’90s, Wilterding and his friend and colleague, George Balogh, Ph.D., from Kalamazoo, were studying moths on the sand dunes of the Great Lakes. Through this work they discovered a species of moth new to science that can only be found on the beaches of the Great Lakes. Dr. Balogh named the species Pyla arenaeola, which roughly translates to place of wind and sand.
“A fitting name, I think,” said Wilterding. “We were fortunate to be able to complete our research on this species and formally describe it for the first time.”
Wilterding regularly takes on students during the summer months to conduct field work on moths, passing on his knowledge and skill to those interested in learning his trade. This summer he has hired Forrest Frantz, a junior majoring in biology with a pre-med concentration, to assist in the biotic inventory of moth species found on the college’s biological preserve.
Wilterding is one of only a handful of biologists in the region who knows Michigan’s bugs well enough to keep a structured count of biodiversity. “I don’t consider myself an expert because there is too much yet to learn,” he said. “You can say I’ve crossed the boundary where I feel like I have a beginner’s handle on the more than 2,600 moth species in Michigan.
“I guess it would be like sitting down and thinking about 1,300 people you know; recalling details of their lives and holding an intelligent conversation about them, describing how they look, etc. How long would that take you? Thirty years? A lifetime?” Wilterding added with a laugh.
Wilterding’s Livingston Professorship is a reflection of his extraordinary ability to engage students throughout the entire learning process. He leads a classroom environment that is marked by his enthusiasm for learning and high expectations.
Hesitant to explain how he feels about the honor, the word “humbled” comes to mind.
“In some ways it’s hard to explain… I wouldn’t succeed if it weren’t for all the great people here contributing to my success. It can’t work any other way,” he concluded. “There are many people working very hard here, contributing to the success of our students. I don’t just say that because I should; I say it because it’s true. Success doesn’t happen in isolation. I have a lot to be thankful for, working here, with the Olivet community.”