A Professor On Five Continents
33 Years of Field Studies with Rick Lampe
Over the years as a biology professor at Buena Vista University, Dr. Rick Lampe estimates that he's taught 4,000 students. "They are what keep me doing it," he says. "If I had become a researcher, I'm sure I wouldn't have become as happy or as successful."
Just as remarkable are the many adventures Lampe has with students, current and former, in areas as wide-ranging as the study of badgers in the Midwest, fly fishing in Arkansas, and on-location field biology across five continents.Some may find it odd that the resident zoologist at a school whose mascot is the beaver happens to be an expert on badgers.
But Dr. Rick Lampe, professor of biology, doesn't mind.
"If you have ever met Dr. Lampe, you have gotten ‘badgered' at some point," says Brittany Denker, a sophomore biology and chemistry major from Audubon. "His stories always start out with ‘I'm going to badger you for a moment!' It's a lot of fun to see the reaction on peoples' face when they realize exactly what he meant by ‘badger.' You can always tell that he really loves it."
Lampe, Class of 1969, wrote his PhD dissertation on predatory strategies of the North American badger, and one of his most recent projects with students was mounting a marker-tip sized camera to a remote-controlled 1/24 scale replica of an M1-A2 Abrams Tank to send underground to observe the animals' burrows. Like many of Lampe's projects, their nature is such that they must be performed in the field, which is wellsuited to his educational style.
Students take a moment to observe their new environment and take in the scenery.
In his 33 years as faculty member at Buena Vista University, Lampe has led 22 trips with students, ranging from tropical ecology in Belize to on-site fly fishing instruction in Arkansas. These trips are for students' academic credit, are usually co-led by other BVU faculty members and staff, and - more recently - have included alumni and members of the Storm Lake community.
"I felt like that college freshman of 1976 being introduced to badger ecology all over again," says Mark Lewis, Class of 1980, of a 2001 field trip he took with Lampe in South Africa. "Dr. Lampe was then, and remains, one of the most passionate naturalists and inspiring individuals I have encountered in my life."
Lewis was a student in Lampe's first biology class in 1976. The two have remained friends throughout their professional lives, keeping in regular communication and sometimes fly fishing together. Lewis, like many of Lampe's students, has gone on to a successful career in a biology-related field: he is currently a partner at Newfields, an environmental consulting firm in Boulder, Colo.
"Traveling with Dr. Lampe is simple," says Bekah (Larson) Hansen, Class of 2003. "He knows where to go and where not to go. He knows what will be interesting even if it doesn't sound like it will be. He can always find the best place to eat."
In the June following her graduation, Bekah took Lampe's "Issues in South African Biology" course along with her future husband Chris, who also attended BVU for three years, and future father in-law, Dr. Greg Hansen. Bekah is currently an obstetrics nurse at Buena Vista Regional Medical Center, while Chris has a dental practice with his father in Storm Lake.
"I believe Dr. Lampe's strongest point as an educator is that he has experience," says Austin Ferguson, a sophomore biology major from Dakota Dunes, S.D., who (along with Brittany Denker) joined Lampe's most recent trip to South Africa in June 2009. "He has stories upon stories to draw on that are all very interesting."
From his journeys, Lampe has photographs of the Australian Outback and tales of a car breakdown while fly fishing in Italy. He shares memories of taking students to Los Alamos, N.M., where he had a graduate school colleague who was studying deer populations on the nuclear testing grounds. He recalls the excitement a student felt when the student realized the research project he had done on a 10-day trip to the Florida Keys used the same methodology as a published study on the same topic.
"Elephants have chased us," he says with a smile, and does not elaborate.
"When I taught desert or marine biology in Florida or Texas, we were always doing projects: you ask questions, get a hypothesis, grab some data, and test it," says Lampe. "In Africa, there's a very good reason to stay in the car: you go fumbling around in Kruger Park, and you're going to be lunch. But you can watch, you can observe, and you can count. Can we see the ‘Big Five' (lion, leopard, elephant, rhino and buffalo) every day? You can't. Can you try? You shouldn't; it's futile. Will you? Probably."
"Imagine seeing giraffe heads poking up out of the timber munching on the highest leaves in the trees less than a quarter of a mile from the interstate," says Kerry (Weddle) Hastings, Class of 1987. "What we think of as houseplants here are huge and growing in the wild."
In 2005, Kerry joined her husband Craig, Class of 1986, and Lampe, their friend and professor, on a trip to South Africa. Kerry is currently a lab supervisor at Pioneer Hi-Bred International Inc, while Craig is a senior research associate at Iowa State University in veterinary microbiology and preventive medicine.
"We visited a farm very near the east coast," says Kerry. "It's not like an Iowa farm. That region is very hilly there, nearly mountainous. It's nearly impossible to plant anything in nice straight rows, so they plant sugar cane and trees everywhere there's spare land." It's vistas and insights like these - along with Rick Lampe himself - that make these journeys before (and after) graduation so memorable. "It's so much different, because if it's in my students' books, it's just another picture," says
Lampe. "I'm showing that these things are real."
Lampe plans to lead student trips to Australia in 2010 and South Africa in 2011. His most recent trip was to South Africa in June 2009.
"I got into fly fishing when I turned 50, when my wife Maxine (Wrantjes, Class of 1966) looked at me and said that we needed to top talking about finding more hobbies and start finding some. Max is my best traveling partner. She loves to do the planning and I do the navigation during the trip. We've traveled together in Egypt, Israel, New Zealand, and Ireland, among other places. This time, however, she gave me a fly fishing trip for my 50th birthday, while she developed an interest in weaving.
When I became an avid fly fisher, I thought, ‘wow, this can really change your view of the world.' You begin to be a conservationist at heart. When you get out to beautiful places where you fish, you really appreciate the few days you have. You relax from the stresses of your life, you relish that moment, and you want to hold that feeling in your mind and your heart. The thought of not having a place to connect with nature, your mind, and yourself causes you to want to protect them.
If I can get someone - a college-age person - to not be afraid to go out and go fly fishing, even if they don't do it right now, they'll come back when they're 40 and 45, and they'll remember how to cast. When they take their sons and daughters out to the
stream, they'll begin to connect again."
The Big Five
"When I was a student here, I went on the marine biology trip to Jamaica taught by Prof. Ron Smith. There was nothing else like it offered at the time. We were there for about 10 days. I turned 21 in Jamaica. It was an academic course: he taught it at BV during the semester, we went during spring break, and we finished up the term with an exam.
The ‘ah ha' moments I had there were seeing coral and having the snot scared out of me because I thought I saw a shark fin. I remember thinking, ‘Is that a shark or a box floating in the water?' I didn't have my glasses on. These memories - seeing squid and manta rays, tasting salt water - stay with me. To just go out, swim around, and think about all these creatures is different from reading about them."
The First Trip
"It was 1976 when I came back to Buena Vista, this time as a professor. Dr. Jerry Poff (now professor emeritus of biology) and I proposed a trip to some place warm, and that became ‘Desert Biology' in Big Bend National Park. We had a dozen or so students with us.
Now, there was a store beside our campground run by an elderly couple, George and Mabel Burdick. Near the end of our time there, they invited Jerry and I to come to their trailer for dinner.
"‘Thank you so much for doing this. Do you do this for everybody?" I asked them.
"Oh no," Mabel said. "We've been here three years, and you're the first. We've never seen a group of students like yours. You talk to us, you talk to the locals, and you play with the children. We'd like to do something special for you. What would you like?"
Dr. Lampe on a hike near the village of Zubrince, Czech Republic, in 2004.
In the park, you can't pick up anything or collect any specimens. I understand and support that, but as a biologist, it's kind of hard. We were also 100 yards from Mexico. There were people coming across the Rio Grande all day long, buying things, taking them back to their houses.
I said: "Two things: I'd like an authentic Mexican meal, and I'd like to be able to show my students the desert rodents and set some traps."
The couple knew a family across the border with a restaurant, and they fixed us a delicious meal but wouldn't take any money. The restaurant had a gift shop, so I told the students to go buy things. Of course, you're supposed to bargain, and the students didn't know how. To correct this imbalance, the owners said, ‘Do you have a wife?' I said, ‘yes' and they said ‘take this perfume dispenser for her. Do you have kids? Take these toys.'
"After dinner, we went across the dusty dirt street to a cantina to have a beer. Later that night, the Mexican Hat Dance came on and I look over and here's Jerry and a guy in blue denim with sheep's wool lining, and he and Jerry are dancing around and around this hat. In the midst of the music, the guy reaches inside his jacket, pulls out a revolver and goes blam blam blam into the roof. The music stopped, and the men in the bar took this guy outside.
Later in the evening, this man got into a fight, and the same people that told him to cool it, the men in the bar made a wall between the fight and us. They looked out for us; they all knew we were friends of the Burdicks. Finally, one of the men in the bar came, tapped me on the shoulder and said, ‘it's time to go'. They had brought pickups, and took us back across the river in boats.
That was my very first trip with students.
The postscript to this - the other half of my request - was we met Tiny Phillips. Tiny was a semi-pro football player in the 1930s and, later, a Wildcat oil driller in Louisiana. He had made a fortune, lost that, made another fortune, and had a lifetime of stories and no one to tell them to. We went out to his ranch to trap rodents, where he encouraged us to stay for as long as we could. Of course, then, we only had a few days, but a year and a half later, in 1979, I took him up on his offer when I returned and taught desert biology from his ranch."
See photos of Dr. Lampe's travels in the online photo gallery.