2001 Metcalf Cup & Prize

Frederick E. Wasserman, CAS

fwassermanProfessor Fred Wasserman, who studies animal behavior, began his scientific career with a study of “the advertising song of the white-throated sparrow”—two or three long notes in falling pitch, followed by a series of dactyls that sounded to Americans of another generation like “Poor Sam Pea’body, Pea’body, Pea’body.” Zonotrichia albicollis is not the most tuneful of musicians, but like Walt Whitman, he sings a Song of Myself that is distinctive and penetrating.

Professor Wasserman perhaps learned something about his own calling from the call of the white-throated sparrow, for as a teacher he too possesses an utterly distinct voice and an ability to penetrate through the thickets of any classroom. Like the sparrow, he eschews banal smoothness and sweetness for a vigorous enunciation that is all his own.

“Think back to your most influential elementary school teacher,” a student asks. “Call to mind that teacher who sparked curiosity, inspired thought beyond the classroom, and instilled a desire to do your best. The school year ended and, with a bittersweet certainty, you knew that you’d never have another teacher like that again. Well, if you attended Boston University and were fortunate to have a class with Professor Wasserman, you were wrong.”

Professor Wasserman’s ability to inspire his students is not limited to classes of a single type: large lectures, small seminars, laboratory work, field study, introductory surveys, advanced graduate classes—Professor Wasserman is master of them all. A student of behavioral adaptations, he himself exemplifies versatility and virtuosity in the art of making every class seem like his natural setting.

One student writes that Professor Wasserman is a “wizard” who moves “seamlessly from his animated, interactive teaching to slides, video clips, and overheads.” And, indeed, his classes are marvels of planned coincidences. No sooner does a student think to ask about a particular bird’s song, than its recorded trill fills the air. Who cares, says another, how birds learn to sing? And a lecture commences linking birdsong to the re-growth of neurons in Alzheimer’s patients.

Professor Wasserman, writes another student, “deftly integrates the everyday experience of humans” with his exposition of scientific theory. And students and colleagues praise his “kindness and humility.” One student, abashed to receive the lowest score on a biology examination, writes that, after she met with him, she felt “capable and encouraged.” Like his sparrows, Professor Wasserman seems the soul of affability and the most genial of teachers, but that is not all. For, underneath his Poor Sam Peabody warmth and cordiality is a teacher of Whitmanesque breadth and energy, a man of hard-driving passion for science, of thriving curiosity about the whole phenomenal world, and of breathtaking love of teaching. Such a down-to-earth yet soaring spirit exemplifies the great teaching that led Arthur G. B. Metcalf to establish the Metcalf Cup and Prize, which Professor Fred Wasserman has manifestly earned.