Bernstein encourages student exploration & research

When Professor of Biology Neil Bernstein finished his doctoral work in 1982 and was ready to begin his career, he realized that Mount Mercy would be an excellent institution in which to teach, focus on his research, and make a difference in students’ lives.

Twenty-six years later Bernstein is a senior member of Mount Mercy’s Biology Department, and he regularly involves students in his successful research of ornate box turtles. His students attribute his staying power to his desire and commitment to assist them in attaining their professional goals — through research and one-on-one interaction that prepares them for life outside the classroom, whether in a research lab or business environment.

Bernstein was drawn to Mount Mercy’s search for an assistant biology professor, which called for a faculty member to teach general botany and comparative vertebrate anatomy. Bernstein was uniquely suited to the task. “Those two particular courses don’t normally go together in anyone’s training,” he says, but “I had already taught both of these courses as a Master’s student.” Bernstein was an attractive candidate, and won over his future colleagues during the interview process.

“I will always remember going back to my office after Neil’s interview for the position of assistant professor and thinking, ‘This guy has gone to Antarctica…wow!’” says Professor of Biology and department colleague Will Kirkland. “Neil helps his students see the relevance of what they are learning. He makes them work, and most importantly, he makes them think.”

Throughout his education, Bernstein assembled the tools to teach a wide variety of biology, wildlife and outdoor conservation courses. He also gained the skills and interest in mentoring students and preparing them for “real world” experiences in a variety of professions.

Bernstein’s time at John Carroll University, where he earned his Masters in Biology, would prove to be a turning point in his career. Through his dealings with professors there, he learned first-hand the intense role that mentorship and personal interactions with faculty members can have in a student’s growth and development. It was during this time that he realized he wanted to teach.

Bernstein was fortunate to have strong, positive mentors throughout his educational journey. E. Bruce McLean, who Bernstein credits with having taught him “how to teach,” was a significant influence at John Carroll University. “It was on a more personal basis, which was true for a lot of the professors there,” says Bernstein. “I learned how to teach groups of smaller than 300.” This aspect of his teaching training would be useful when he eventually came to Mount Mercy — where the average class size is less than 15 students, and few courses have more than 50 people.

At the University of Minnesota, where Bernstein earned his Ph.D. in Ecology and Behavioral Biology, he met the next mentor in his life: David F. Parmelee, who was very supportive and believed his job was to provide Bernstein with opportunities to interact with students and hone his teaching skills. “Dave provided the freedom to do what you wanted to do, and he was patient even when you made mistakes,” says Bernstein. “Dave gave me a lot of freedom to move forward in my own way, and there was a lot of trust involved with that,” he says. “I think I do that a lot with my research students. I point them in the direction and then I give them the freedom to see where they end up.”

For the past 10 years Bernstein has honed his personal style of mentorship and offered summer grants to support research students. He works with his students to secure internships that will bolster their experience, making them more attractive to future employers and graduate schools. His students have taken part in research internships at Mount Mercy by working on Bernstein’s ongoing research project that includes radio tracking of ornate box turtles (Terrapene ornata ornata) in a protected wildlife reserve, focusing on habitat comparisons in the area to prepare for monitoring of the turtles to the periodic flooding, and studying thermoregulatory behaviors and the impacts of predation on reproductive success.

One of the research specialities of Dr. Neil Bernstein is the box turtle. An ongoing project includes radio tracking of ornate box turtles.
One of the research specialities of Dr. Neil Bernstein is the box turtle. An ongoing project includes radio tracking of ornate box turtles.

Bernstein has also mentored students who have taken part in medical internships, and as often as possible he will steer students toward research-based internships, regardless of their intended career path. He sees a distinct connection between the skills he teaches students — whether they are biology majors or not — and the critical thinking and observation skills essential in studying for an advanced degree. “You may think that following turtles around with radios doesn’t give you the training for medical school,” says Bernstein, “until you realize that you were trained to do research, make independent thoughts, independent conclusions and persevere through some very difficult conditions to get the job done. And clearly the medical schools and the law schools think the same thing.”

Former students sing Bernstein’s praises because the information they learned from him and the first-hand knowledge gained at his side have served them well as they plowed their own paths. “Especially with my internship Neil emphasized the importance of gaining research experience for continued success,” says Leanne Martin ’02, who graduated with a degree in Biology. Martin went on to earn a Masters degree from Iowa State University and is now the Allwine Prairie Preserve Manager at the University of Nebraska-Omaha. “The experience I gained while working with Neil proved valuable for admission into graduate school, and was really the spring-board for my career in the ecological sciences. He was the type of professor who was passionate about his subject matter and he created a learning environment that involved critical thinking.”

Greg Blythe ’08, a biology major from Cedar Rapids, took courses from Bernstein, who also assisted him in finding an internship at the University of Wisconsin – Madison. As part of the internship, Blythe conducted research on “Identification of Complementing SUMO Transgenes in Arabidopsis thaliana.” “He helped me find an internship and wrote a letter of recommendation for me,” says Blythe. “The internship gave me an opportunity to use the information I learned in the classroom and to use real-life application. I didn’t realize how much I knew and what I could do until I got into a lab to do research.”

Bernstein’s colleagues and students also appreciate the adventurous attitude and approach he brings to the natural sciences department at Mount Mercy. “I think of Neil as our ‘outdoor’ biologist,” says Kirkland. “His enthusiasm for using the outdoors — field trips — as part of his classroom carries over to the students.” Former student Martin says, “Neil’s classes were often very challenging, and he was not willing to accept sub-par performances from his students. You came away from his classes knowing you worked hard for your new-found knowledge.”

This summer Bernstein will continue his research project with ornate box turtles working with two Mount Mercy students in the field. He is already planning projects for the summer of 2009, including work at Big Sand Mount Preserve near Muscatine, Iowa. “Neil applies what students are learning beyond the classroom,” says Kirkland. “In the end his students are very grateful that Neil was one of their professors. I’m certainly glad that our department was smart enough to hire the young guy who went to Antarctica.“