Associate Professor of Biology
When your childhood backyard is 125 acres of Missouri woods intersected by streams, meadows, and bordered by a river, it might be pre-ordained that you would grow up to be a biologist. After all, wandering through wildlife habitat can become habit-forming.
"I would go into the backyard with my brothers or sometimes by myself and turn over logs and rocks looking for salamanders and snakes," says John Matter, associate professor of biology, who grew up in Eureka, Mo., a rural suburb of St. Louis. "I thought this is stuff that kids do; it didn't occur to me until I was in college that I could do this as my job."
These days, Matter is still turning over rocks looking for things that crawl in worlds little seen by human beings. Instead of doing it solo, he shares the experience with new batches of Juniata students each year. Matter has found reptilian (and amphibian) fauna, with help from cadres of Juniatians, from Florida to Arizona, as well as a few steps out the back door of Brumbaugh Academic Center.
Matter, the son of a biologist and a clinical dietitian, seemingly had the word "scientist" imprinted onto his DNA, although it took some time for his destiny to worm its way to the top. You see, his mother's dream was focused on medical school.
He entered the University of Missouri intent on studying medicine, but soon realized something was missing. "I was in a class among students who had clear ideas about what they wanted to do as doctors and I realized I didn't have that aspiration," he recalls. The moment of truth came in a herpetology class, when he realized that biology offered much more than a path to doctor-dom.
Inspired by his new biological interests, Matter entered the graduate biology program at St. Louis University, a smaller research institution that had a very tight-knit community of faculty and students. He centered his research on endocrine reproduction in fence lizards and looked for opportunities to learn more. He found a breadth of topics at his first professional conference. "I was like a kid in a candy store," Matter laughs. "I think I went to five sessions every day for four days."
One of the speakers Matter heard at the conference was a reptile researcher from the University of Florida named Lou Guillete. Matter kept in touch with the older professor and when it came time to apply for doctoral programs, Matter's scientific compass turned south toward Guillete's program.
Like many graduate programs, most of the Florida doctoral candidates were required to teach. One of Matter's first assignments was a histology course. The professor teaching the class, whose expertise focused on electric eels, left on an Amazonian research trip, leaving Matter to teach the course. The young grad student was himself electrified by the experience.
"It was trial by fire and I was as nervous as heck," he says. "I didn't want to look frightened--students can smell fear."
No fear surfaced that day or any other, and Matter found himself seeking out more teaching experience, even to the point of neglecting his doctoral research. Still, his research on the mountain spiny lizard, found in the deserts of Arizona, required him to spend several weeks a year in Arizona, an experience he passes on to Juniata students annually during the Remote Field Course ("We take the students to the same place where I did my original research.").
After putting in time in postdoctoral work, Matter sought teaching positions where personal interaction with students was part of the equation. He had gone on many interviews and a colleague e-mailed him about a job opening at Juniata. "He said, 'I think you'd be a good match for this place,'" Matter says.
He came to the College in 1997 and taught and taught, and taught some more. He developed a couple of new courses in reproductive biology and environmental toxicology. He also found that Huntingdon's rolling hills were conducive to an old hobby--biking. Matter decided to become faculty adviser to the Cycling Club and after his first year, when he felt financially secure, his first big purchase was a road bike.
The road to Juniata brought him to a place that celebrates seeking out new things and new experiences while bringing students into those teachable moments. He's still somewhat surprised that he gets paid for doing what he loved to do as a kid.
Sometimes what you want is right in your own backyard.
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