By Jason Enns
Students sit in a room full of distractions; lizards and other slimy creatures line the walls in aquariums, fossils of animals long since past hang from the ceiling. In front of them are microscopes and squids laid out on the table, and yet a gleeful presence brings attention to the front of the class.
By the whiteboard is a small smiley blonde woman trying to transfer her excitement for cephalopods to her students.
Laurie McConnico, full- time biology professor, is calling out to the class to clarify a question on her lab. She then combs the class as students conduct their experiment. For those who want her help she responds as a fun and effective teacher.
She’s not afraid of being called the “crazy seaweed lady;” she is friendly, and even a little goofy, which one might expect from someone who has strong passions for both science and helping others learn.
McConnico lives a life of balance between being a teacher and a scientist.
She recently received a sabbatical permitting her a one- year leave with pay from her full time position at Cuesta. For the next academic school year McConnico will be far away from the coastal campus doing research in Mexico as part of her Ph.D program.
As a woman who enjoys research and loves algae, she is enthused to be studying the nutrient dynamics of red algae rhodoliths that live off the Gulf of California.
“I’m really into algae, so I study seaweed. I nerd out on those pretty extensively,” McConnico said.
The calcified red algae she will be studying are not attached to anything, but sit in beds along the ocean floor with anywhere from hundreds to thousands of individual, free-moving pieces of algae.
Each piece grows very slowly, with several organisms living inside it. McConnico will be researching the potential of these organisms to make nutrients and their contribution to the algae’s survival.
“If you have a nutrient poor environment, it doesn’t necessarily mean everything is nutrient starved,” McConnico said.
“They are basically a little condo; they play home or host to a number of different invertebrates,” McConnico said. “Well, you’re 100 years old and you have 1,000 bodies living inside you that’s a big deal when you think about things humans do to potentially disturb the sea bed.”
McConnico knows not everyone has or would appreciate her knowledge of sea life, but she is doing her part to grow that knowledge through research and extend it to others.
“I would hope that when students are done taking one of my courses they have a bigger appreciation for the marine or terrestrial environment … and in both cases, hopefully learn how much humans are negatively impacting those environments and the rapid rate in which they are doing so,” McConnico said. “You have a tremendous capacity to make a negative impact.”
She has always wanted to study marine biology she said, but “the teaching part … was almost an accident.” However, now full-time faculty, McConnico has two marine biology courses, an ecology course, a coastal field studies class, and co-teaches environmental microbiology with Dr. Favoreto.
“I’ve been at Cuesta probably longer than I’ve been anywhere since I left my parents house,” McConnico said. This is her seventh year.
Go back a few years and you’ll find McConnico in Florida, working as a phychologist (someone who studies seaweed). Unhappy with management there, she applied for her first ever teaching job as a general biology professor at San Diego City College. After only one year there she got a job at Cuesta working more hands on and in her desired field.
“Ecology is probably my science background, the distribution and abundance of organisms and how the environment affects those things,” McConnico said. “So that may be my discipline but then you go to marine realm, and that’s where I choose to apply it.”
She gets to apply it pretty regularly in her Coastal Field Studies class, which she says is a unique opportunity because it is the type of class you would generally only see at the university level.
“I get a tremendous amount of support,” McConnico said, “students, faculty, etc. There has been a wide range of support for me to go back to school while keeping my job.”
However, for someone who never thought they’d be a teacher but has a passion for science and helping people learn, the job comes with certain challenges.
“I have less and less tolerance … for students who just haven’t figured out why they’re in school, and that it really is a privilege. There are a lot of people who would love to go to college, but can’t afford it [or] never got that opportunity,” McConnico said. “They take a lot of my soul on a daily basis … and take away from experiences from students … who do want to learn, or at least know they want to do well.”
Being a professor can be stressful enough, yet McConnico takes on more. Come fall she will be balancing life as full-time faculty, and a full-time student, while doing it in Mexico, and all in Spanish. But, McConnico prefers life as a busy body.
“Part of my motivation for going back to school is that I miss doing research … whatever I’m doing 10 years from now, I hope it involves being able to do research and still teach.”
Though teaching was not a part of her plan it has become a large part of her life, and she believes she has important knowledge to pass on to students.
“I would like to motivate students to see that there are plenty of strange, bizarre and lovely creatures out there and that they warrant protection … and that maybe they’d be energized to do their part in caring for it.”