|Bacteria have earned Professor Paula Fives-Taylors 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 professors 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
hours discussion. If youre a bacterium looking for a great
lifestyle, you cant beat being sexually transmitted. Its warm,
its moist a great environment, she says, her Brooklyn accent
softened by twenty-five years in Vermont.
Fives-Taylors 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
Associations 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-Taylors 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-Taylors excellence as a teacher but also
her influence as a mentor. Fachon-Kalweit, who earned a UVM bachelors
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-Taylors laboratory and ultimately
to a Ph.D.
Peter Durda, class of 1980, found his way to Fives-Taylors 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 didnt 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. Its 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. Helenas
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. Isnt 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. Ive 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. Id 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 isnt 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 isnt the same thing,
because you arent 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-Taylors 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 students 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. Thats good, I think. It keeps you
up. Teaching needs to be the most important thing youre 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.