Spotlight on Faculty:  Chris J. Bell


Chris BellThe office of Dr. Chris J. Bell, Assistant Professor and John A. Wilson Fellow in Vertebrate Paleontology, looks like a maze in the Halloween cornstalk tradition, but the walls of this maze are bookshelves. Inside, books range in topic from snake encyclopedias to journals about rodent skeletons to geology books reprinted from 1790, with Italian marbleized covers.

Bell, like his book collection, has interests in every corner of the globe. He splits his main research between, on one hand, using rodent skeletons to determine the age of rock in the Quaternary Period, which began about 1.77 million years ago and is the most recent period of archeological history, and on the other hand, studying reptile fossils in North America and Australia.

Both his graduate career and professional career have reflected a process of moving from curiosity to curiosity, creating links from one interest to the next, and finding creative ways to interest his students in their own work. "My work has allowed me to follow my bliss," says Bell. "I hope the same happens for my students."

The classes he teaches range all over the Geoscience spectrum, including Life through Time, The Age of Mammals, Natural History Museum Science, and Morphology of the Vertebrate Skeleton. For this last class, he keeps a supply of fish head skeletons that he acquires through trips to the Central Market fish counter. The collection includes a gar, the pointed heads of several snapper, and two gaping-mouth Goosefish, an ocean floor dweller with a huge rectangular head and a small tadpole tail.

Bell puts a great deal of creativity and energy into teaching - for which he has received several teaching excellence awards, most recently the Chancellors' Council Teaching Award.

Chris Bell marking a fossil locality in the black Rock Desert of Nevada.

Chris Bell is marking a fossil locality in the black
Rock Desert of Nevada.

Discussing his teaching experience, he says: "The courses that made a difference to me were the ones where anonymity was destroyed in classroom." In practice, he explains, this means learning students' names early, encouraging them to learn each other's names, doing small group exercises in class, and having as much discussion as possible. 

As a graduate student, Bell paid very close attention to faculty members in order to learn how to deal with the less-talked-about aspects of the academic professional life. He says: "As grad students in the sciences, we were taught to do research and publish papers. But there wasn't much preparation for the other parts of the job. So I watched my professors in order to figure out what sort of teacher I wanted to be. I learned from every teacher I had - both good things and bad things."

When teaching graduate students, Dr. Bell works to help them tailor the program to accomplish their goals. In addition, he tries to train his graduate students in the sciences to step back and look at their own assumptions and biases. "One you identify these things and begin to address them," he says, "then you get a sense of how these biases are shaping the results you get and the conclusions you draw from the results."

Bell received a BS in geology from The College of William & Mary, and an MA in Quaternary studies from Northern Arizona University. After graduation he worked at a small museum in San Bernadino, California. In order to take breaks from the city, he spent his weekends in the dessert, looking at lizards, watching their habits, examining their bones. After this, he went to Berkeley, where he studied paleontology (formally Integrative Biology) and in 1997 received his PhD.

By Elisabeth McKetta, October, 2007
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