“I wasn’t so sure how to do it when I first got to Cornell, but over the years you feel like you can really make a difference in the lives of students,” said Bill Ghiorse, microbiology, on his years teaching microbiology at the University. “You don’t really realize that right away. It takes a few generations, as your students come and go, for you to realize that.”
An environmental microbiologist, Ghiorse explained, “I’m very interested in the way microbes actually work in nature, and they can be anywhere: on your nose, in your teeth, even in your intestinal tract. Or, they can be out in the ocean.”
He is passionate about the importance of microbes in our world and in the education of biology students and the public.
“Mother Nature - that phrase - most of what you’re talking about is microbial,” said Ghiorse. ”Microbes do all the work.”
He outlined the magnitude of the dearth in human knowledge about such organisms, “You don’t even know which organisms are there, which species. We only know one to two percent of the bacteria that are out there. We’re talking about a world that is pretty wide open.”
Ghiorse considers himself to be “first and foremost a teacher,” having taught the general microbiology lecture since he joined the University as a faculty member in 1979. He plans on teaching this class every fall semester until he retires.
In his office, his shelves are stacked with binders labeled from years of teaching the course. From a teaching family, Ghiorse said he was raised with a respect for education.
“The ones that come back and tell me that ‘I really learned something in your class’ - that’s the most satisfying thing a teacher can experience.”
He feels that the microbiology course is important for premedical students to take, given the vast amount of diseases facing the world directly related to microbes.
Ghiorse’s passion for teaching extends to the general public. One of his main concerns now is to “make sure that reporters get the right story.” He feels public knowledge and awareness will directly affect policy makers.
He uses the recent oil spill clean-up in the Gulf as an example. “[Microbes] don’t ‘gobble’ the oil. No way [do] they gobble. Most of the ones that are doing the job are bacteria,” he said. “Bacteria work by metabolizing those compounds, then they can reduce the size of the particle. Then, the question is how do they know the oil is there? You can study bacteria in the laboratory and find out how they do things, but when you go to the open ocean, it’s a different story.”
Starting his undergraduate career as a physics major, Ghiorse found himself drawn towards biology. While working in Vermont as a technician in a microbiology lab, he became interested in bacteria. He worked with the bacteria that cause mastitis, a disease that affects cow udders.
Ghiorse found his physics background to be handy when he used an electron microscope while working on a master’s in microbiology. He said he “found it satisfying” to be able to apply his physics training to biology.
After deciding he wanted a higher degree, he went to Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and began working with Henry Ehrlich in geomicrobiology, an emerging field at the time. That work eventually led him to his current field, environmental microbiology.
“You will find satisfaction in doing something that you think is interesting… Don’t listen to your roommates, your parents, or anybody else. Find out what you’re really interested in and go for it. No matter where it takes you, you’ll always be happy,” said Ghiorse “ … unless of course, it’s something illegal.”