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Bugs and biochemistry

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Hal White shares his intellectual journey with members of UD’s Association of Retired Faculty

Hal White

​​

​Retired University of Delaware biochemistry professor Hal White discusses his career during a meeting of the UD Association of Retired Faculty at the Courtyard Newark at the University of Delaware. ​

Hal White’s intellectual journey began in central Pennsylvania as a child with insects….and grass and hills and trees and even a stream and a swimming hole in his backyard. Now a retired and decorated University of Delaware biochemistry professor, White’s intellectual journey has taken him back to ...insects and grass and hills and trees and nature of many kinds.

“I spent a lot of my youth outside and I learned a lot of my biology outside,” White told a recent meeting of the UD’s Association of Retired Faculty (UDARF). “When I went into the classroom, I had experienced it, but I just didn’t know what the names were for it.”

If you have any interest in dragonflies and damselflies on the Delmarva Peninsula, White is your go-to source.

“Now I’m retired and I’m back to my bugs,” said White, whose 2011 book Natural History of Delmarva Dragonflies and Damselflies, was published by University of Delaware Press.

White’s description of his life and career was a segment called “My Intellectual Journey,” in UDARF’s speaker series that resumed in the 2021-22 academic year after being suspended in 2020-21 because of the coronavirus pandemic. The pandemic is still an issue and future events might be held virtually. The UDARF website has the schedule.

White earned his bachelor’s degree in biochemistry from Penn State, took an intense summer course in physiology at the Marine Biological Laboratory, in Woods Hole, Massachusetts, and completed his doctorate in biochemistry from Brandeis University. He then spent a year as postdoctoral researcher in chemistry at Harvard. After that, he spent all but two of the next 44 years teaching and researching at UD. The two years away from Newark were spent on sabbaticals researching and learning about genetics and enzyme evolution at the University of California, Davis, and vitamin metabolism in poultry at The Roslin Institute in Edinburgh, Scotland.

White built his academic career studying riboflavin binding protein in chicken eggs, and growing as a teacher intent on helping students at all levels learn biochemistry.

White said mostly positive student evaluations for a decade of teaching are still online, but he emphasized that the struggle to acquire knowledge was part of the learning process that some students resist. While plagiarism is not acceptable, appropriate collaboration between students — and researchers and co-workers — is essential for individual and group learning. White joked about students’ sense of “shared deprivation,” in their quest to understand biochemistry, yet, “They knew everybody was struggling but learning together.”

Experiential learning for White began at birth in 1943, he told the audience. His outdoor experiences were enhanced by parents and grandparents, teachers and friends of teachers who valued education in different forms.

“You might wonder how a biochemistry professor ends up writing a book about dragonflies,” White said. “It started when I was 5 years old.”

One fall day, White brought home a large, green caterpillar. Instead of shrieking and sending him outside, White’s mother recognized it and gave her son a jar. The caterpillar spun a cocoon and spent the winter with White and his family.

“The following spring, out came this impossibly gorgeous moth — the cecropia moth,” White said. “Well, that hooked me.”

However, White’s interests ranged far and wide. (Years later, a tenure committee critique suggested he should be more narrowly focused in his research.) In elementary school, he collected arrowheads and was interested in archeology.

“My first college ‘lecture’ was at age 8 — on archeology,” White said of talking to students in his paternal grandfather’s class at Defiance College in Ohio.

A key moment in White’s academic journey and path to being a professor came in junior high school. He was collecting moths at a frozen custard stand one evening when he met a couple who were both entomologists and they encouraged White’s passion for bugs. Later, when White brought a rare dragonfly to collect a $10 reward from the couple, he met their friend, a geologist who was also interested in dragonflies. When the visiting friend asked what White planned for a college major, White told him he was planning to major in entomology. The geologist told him that was a mistake.

“He said, ‘Do the most difficult thing you enjoy and keep entomology as a hobby, an avocation,’ ” White said. White followed the advice into and through college and graduate school as a student of biochemistry and for decades as a professor, learning all the way. As a graduate student in Boston in the late 1960s, there was a lot to learn besides biochemistry.

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Hal White delivers presentation

​The UD Association of Retired Faculty resumed meetings in the fall of 2021 after the coronavirus pandemic forced cancellation of the schedule in the 2020-21 academic year. ​

White’s world in grade school in central Pennsylvania was very white — as in few people of color. During his grad school years in Boston, White and classmates tutored in the much more diverse Roxbury neighborhood, which had rioting in 1967 and 1968. He said he listened to the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. speak at an event. Young men were being drafted for military service, including deployment to the jungles of Vietnam, and those with the lowest draft numbers went first. White said he was lucky, drawing No. 365, the second highest possible number and he was not drafted. He said he watched and joined Vietnam War protests.

“Tutoring in Roxbury and Boston was a real eye-opener to me about what life was like in the inner city,” White said.

White was a founding member of the Institute for Transforming Undergraduate Education (ITUE) and conducted many education workshops on problem-based learning at UD and at colleges and universities across the country. For 18 years he was director of the Howard Hughes Medical Insttitue’s Undergraduate Science Education grant that initiated the NUCLEUS Program, which provided students with comprehensive academic services, connections, opportunities and information. In 2013 he was honored as Delaware’s Professor of the Year, as chosen by the Council for the Advancement and Support of Education (CASE) and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching. In 2014, White received the excellence in education award from the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology.

White told the group that he learned that lecturing may not be the best use of classroom time, that assignments must be intellectually challenging, relevant and require work outside the classroom, and that a social support structure is needed. Now in retirement, he has returned to studying and publishing on dragonflies.

“The intellectual journey is not just what you publish,” White said, “but everything you experience in life.”​​

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​ Article by David Sell; Photos by Kathy F. Atkinson

Published December 13, 2021​

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