Bacteria have earned Professor Paula Fives-Taylor’s admiration. For her, familiarity breeds respect. The bacteria that take the lead in creating gum disease, in particular, have been a focus of the UVM microbiology professor’s research for decades. “Exciting things, these bugs. So clever, just so clever,” Fives-Taylor says.


Earlier that afternoon, in a guest lecture to a microbiology class, the professor displays her wonder for the secret lives of bacteria, praises the graceful swimming of spirochetes (“I love to watch them on a slide”), and introduces her talk on “The Life Cycle of Chlamydia” with characteristic good humor, erasing some of the discomfort students might feel about the subject of the next hour’s discussion. “If you’re a bacterium looking for a great lifestyle, you can’t beat being sexually transmitted. It’s warm, it’s moist — a great environment,” she says, her Brooklyn accent softened by twenty-five years in Vermont.

Fives-Taylor’s rare ability to take this minute world beneath the microscope and make it, well, human, is one of the many talents she brings to a teaching style that has earned her the UVM Alumni Association’s George V. Kidder Outstanding Faculty Award for 1999.

The professor brings impressive research credentials and international recognition in her field to the classroom. A primary focus of her work has been the adhesion mechanisms which allow bacteria to go about their business. Much of this research has involved the way bacteria stick to teeth and cause tooth decay. Fives-Taylor also conducted key research which established the connection between IUDs and pelvic inflammatory disease. Her work and testimony formed the foundation of cases which eventually resulted in the removal of the Dalkon Shield from commercial sale.

Throughout her UVM career, teaching has gone hand in hand with research in Fives-Taylor’s life. And for her, the very essence of teaching is knowing and caring about her students as individuals. In the hallway linking her research labs hang color snapshots arranged in collages, one titled “P5T, The Early Years.” Barbecues; birthdays; vacations on the Maine coast; Fives-Taylor with a caption reading “The Boss” (looking decidedly un-boss-like surrounded by balloons and smiling widely); her husband, Fred Taylor, professor emeritus of botany, in a baseball cap. And many of the photos feature the students, graduate and undergraduate, who have worked in her lab and who Fives-Taylor has mentored during her years at UVM. There is one studio photograph of the professor and five students posed rather formally. “It looks like a family portrait,” a guest comments.

“It is,” Fives-Taylor says.

Dr. Suzanne Fachon-Kalweit, an instructor of microbiology at Wright State University, echoes many alumni and current students who cite not only Fives-Taylor’s excellence as a teacher but also her influence as a mentor. Fachon-Kalweit, who earned a UVM bachelor’s in 1977 and her doctorate in 1985, recalls taking Clinical Microbiology with Fives-Taylor in the fall of 1975. “By the end of the course, I was hooked on microbiology and on Dr. Paula Fives-Taylor. My desire to continue working and learning with her led me to undergraduate research in Professor Fives-Taylor’s laboratory and ultimately to a Ph.D.”

Peter Durda, class of 1980, found his way to Fives-Taylor’s lab and an eventual biochemistry major through a work-study position. As Durda read and became interested in the articles he was photocopying at his work-study job, Fives-Taylor welcomed his questions. “The one thing that I remember most about all of our talks was the emotion that was always prevalent. Dr. Fives-Taylor was forever passionate and enthusiastic about science; and even more importantly, she cared deeply about her students.”

Teaching, it seems, comes naturally to Fives-Taylor, who announced her chosen profession at age three. Focused from an early age, she had little choice but to grow up quickly. Motherless from the age of ten, life was not easy for Fives-Taylor and her siblings. Eventually, Fives-Taylor and her younger sister went to live with an aunt. Inspired by a poem at age sixteen, which contained the line “what an awful thing to be born and it didn’t matter,” she joined the Dominican nuns and continued on her path to teaching, eventually becoming Sister Dorothy Marie.

While a Dominican, she taught school in Harlem and other parts of the city. Those years made a lasting impression. “I lived with nearly fifty people day in and day out,” she says, explaining that it helps one to learn how to get along with just about everybody. “What I treasured most was how single-minded I could be. Teaching was my whole life. It’s incredible what you can accomplish. Everybody I worked with was so idealistic.”

Fives-Taylor is proud that the focus of those years continues to resonate in the lives of her students. She mentions a St. Helena’s High School student who recently tracked her down some thirty years later to let Fives-Taylor know that she had graduated from college. “I remember the faith that you had that I could be anything,” the student wrote her former teacher. “I thanked you publicly at my graduation and I want to thank you privately now.” Fives-Taylor smiles as she relates the story; clearly, there are no better words a teacher could hear. “Isn’t that what counts?” she asks.

At every level she has taught, Fives-Taylor says, she has always thought, “This is it. This is what I love.” Seven-year-olds, adolescents, medical students. “I’ve come to believe that though there are turning points in our lives and many roads we can take,” Fives-Taylor says, “I could be happy in many different places. I’d be happy if I were still teaching elementary school.”

The quest for a doctorate brought Fives-Taylor to Vermont in 1974, and the other major phase of her professional life, yet the lessons from teaching in New York, New York made sense in Burlington, Vermont as well. “Teaching isn’t just imparting knowledge,” Fives-Taylor says. “It is interacting with students – knowing who they are and where they are. People wonder how you can teach the same thing for twenty years and not be bored. Well, it isn’t the same thing, because you aren’t teaching the subject, you are teaching the student. And, of course, they are always different.”

The principal of her NYC high school insisted that the teachers, such as Fives-Taylor, who taught the highest level classes, also take on the classes with students at the most basic level. That habit has continued at UVM, where she teaches medical students and also undergraduate introductory courses. Fives-Taylor has learned to make her teaching truly student-focused, always operating from the understanding that to teach your students well you must know them well.

Knowing her students has meant many things in Fives-Taylor’s teaching career at UVM. It has meant forming a support group for women medical students when they were a distinct minority during her early years at UVM. It has meant summer vacations at a Maine camp with her family and the students who worked in her lab. And it has meant simple, individual acts, such as the time she spoke to a student in a large lecture class who, under most circumstances, would have remained anonymous under the bill of his baseball cap. Asking him to remove it, she said, “I want to be able to recognize your face. I want to know who you are.”

If that made for a little more tension in the student’s life during that class, that may not be such a bad thing. Fives-Taylor says that she still feels nervous before teaching. “I get butterflies before a lecture,” she says. “That’s good, I think. It keeps you up. Teaching needs to be the most important thing you’re doing. You need to be excited.”

Creativity often comes from such energy, true of all the professional pursuits to which Fives-Taylor has devoted her life. “As much as writing a poem or composing a piece of music,” Fives-Taylor says, “I think research and teaching are among the most creative things a person can do.”

And ones that truly matter.