Unplanned Lessons: A Fresh Eye

Williams biology professor Joan Edwards examines plants with her students.
Williams biology professor Joan Edwards examines plants with her students. Photo by Scott Barrow.

Professors impart knowledge; students receive it. That’s the basic contract at any institution of higher learning. But sometimes, without anyone being immediately conscious of it, the flow of learning reverses—and students teach something to their professors.

During a summer trip to Isle Royale, Mich., to collect botanical data, one of biology professor Joan Edwards’ honors students bent down to examine a patch of small, white flowers blooming on the forest floor. “Something just went poof!” the student told her.

Edwards put the flower under a microscope, where she and her team could see that one of its petals held a trigger. When they gently pushed back the trigger, it released an explosion of pollen into the air.

“The student’s eye had caught something I had missed, something that had been in front of me almost my whole life,” says Edwards, who had grown up seeing the blossoms since she was 12.

Edwards brought some of the Bunchberry Dogwood back to her lab at Williams and, with the help of physics professor Dwight Whitaker, photographed its pollinating mechanism with a high-speed camera. Their discovery—that the buds of the bunchberry burst open and fire their pollen into the air three times faster than the time it takes for a bullet to leave a rifle barrel—was published in Nature and earned the flower a place in The Guinness Book of World Records. She and her student were interviewed on National Public Radio, and the flower opened up a whole new research avenue for Edwards.

“Students bring a fresh eye,” Edwards says. “Bunchberry Dogwood was so familiar to me, I didn’t take the opportunity to look at it closely.  When you’re used to seeing something, you tend to think it is ordinary—when in fact it might be extraordinary.”

This story was originally published in the Williams Alumni Review as part of “Unplanned Lessons,” by Zelda Stern.  (For a text-only version, click here.)