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Professor John Commito's Story

2007 Pennsylvania Professor of the Year John Commito's lab is as big as all outdoors.

Imagine standing waist deep in dank, viscous muck topped with a gooey layer of--to put it delicately--mussel poop. You are, for better or worse, in Committo's "classroom," and you are having the time of your life.

The highlight of the year for many of Commito's students is a two-week road trip (the catalogue calls it a "field experience") to study coastal ecology in Maine. The trip starts with people and a lot of gear piling into a van behind the Science Center on the Gettysburg campus, includes a stop near Boston to visit Professor Commito's family, and culminates far up on Maine's rocky coast in the town of Machias, a remote spot that remains undiscovered by the tourists who flock to towns further south each summer.

When they arrive in Machias, they get to work. They study succession in a spruce forest, work in mussel beds, and examine patterns of snail predation. They also explore the symbiotic balance that connects the natural resources of the area to an economically depressed community that scrapes its existence out of what the sea and the land provide and is unlike any that most of the students have ever seen before. After the day's work is done, they toast marshmallows in bonfires on the beach and tell each other stories about their lives while foghorns groan in the distance.

"It's a total experience," says Professor Commito. "It's not just plants and animals. It's also the people who live there and make a living off of those plants and animals. It's touring Boston and seeing how that city relates to the people in Maine. It's seeing my relationship to Boston, and to Maine, and to my family. We lead integrated lives, and the students need to see that."

Indeed, students get an intimate and multifaceted look at their professor's life as its own sort of case study in human ecology. They've already met John Commito the teacher, in the classroom back on campus. But now there's also John Commito the son, introducing them to his family over pizza around his father's dining room table in Stoneham, Massachusetts. There's John Commito the Red Sox fan, eating overpriced hot dogs in the bleachers of Fenway Park. And maybe most importantly, there's John Commito the professional scientist, quite literally immersed in his work--playing in the mud for a living and enjoying every second of it.

"When students have these kinds of experiences," Professor Commito says, "it expands their horizons, makes them do things they never would have considered. They're given permission to pursue what they love. They see the possibilities of linking your family life to your professional life and your intellectual life--and that's very powerful. That's what a college like Gettysburg can offer."

 2007 marked Commito's second statewide Professor of the Year award from the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the National Council for Advancement and Support of Education. He also won in 1991 while teaching in Maryland.

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