Saving the rainforest no cliche for ASU biologist

September 17, 2015

The Amazon rainforest — it conjures up images of broad expanses of leafy canopies and tropical species of every shape and color. But it’s also something that we literally touch every day, says David Pearson:

“From the eggs we eat, to chicken, to vanilla … Thirty percent of the world’s medicine and hundreds of products we use from the rainforest that we take for granted, we use every day.” David Pearson gives an impromptu master class on Tropical Ecology 101. ASU research professor and Amazon Rainforest Workshops instructor David Pearson gives an impromptu master class on Tropical Ecology 101 at ExplorNapo Lodge in Peru. Photo by: Kelly Keena/Amazon Rainforest Workshops Download Full Image

Christa Dillabaugh calls the Amazon the “mother lode” for a biologist. As the director of Amazon Rainforest Workshops, she works directly with Pearson — a research professor in Arizona State University’s School of Life Sciences and the workshops’ lead instructor — spending their summers in the Peruvian Amazon helping to spread knowledge and appreciation for one of the world’s most abundant, yet swiftly depleting natural resources to fellow educators, students and locals.

“Dave not only brings a wealth of tropical ecology expertise to our program, he is also a fabulous educator,” Dillabaugh said. “His expertise is both wide and deep, and he is so generous with his time and talent. He has the ability to make science and the process of scientific inquiry fun.”

Pearson’s passion for living things and the environment began at age 10 when he developed a fascination with birds, which he said “just came out of nowhere.”

Later, he began traveling the world extensively after a trip to the Marshall Islands while studying as an undergraduate at Pacific Lutheran University. There he met a group of researchers who invited him to spend three months on a bird-watching cruise. He met more researchers on the cruise who had done work in Peru and, “one thing led to another.”

Besides Peru, Pearson has also traveled and researched in Ecuador, Bolivia, India and Madagascar.

“Tropical rainforests around the world always attracted me. They’re very different from Minnesota where I grew up, and they’re also where half the world’s biodiversity is, so thought I could do some good there,” Pearson said.

According to Dillabaugh, he has done a lot of good.

“Dave covers a wide range of topics with our participants — from basic tropical ecology, bird diversity in the rainforest, scientific inquiry and field studies, biomimicry and sustainability/conservation issues in the tropics, and more,” she said. “He is always available to participants for small group discussions, and by the end of the program, they all love ‘Dr. Dave.’”

“The rainforest is wonderful place to demystify science,” Pearson said. “We teach pedagogy, but we also teach storytelling abilities and to care, to be passionate about the rainforest; it’s a very mysterious place, a wonderful place.”

Bridget Molloy, who teaches high school science at La Academia in Denver, participated in the workshops as a “student,” learning from instructors like Pearson and taking that knowledge back to her classroom.

“He was amazing, to put it lightly,” Molloy said of Pearson. “We had a lot of great conversations concerning the conservation of the rainforest.”

When he travels with Amazon Rainforest Workshops to Peru again next summer, it will be Pearson’s third year with the program — and his 86th trip to the country.

“Dave is a rare breed of scientist, and we are so lucky to have him as an instructor,” said Dillabaugh.

Emma Greguska

Editor, ASU News

(480) 965-9657

Family matters to ASU super-advocate Dan Turbyfill

September 17, 2015

Editor's note: This story is being highlighted in ASU Now's year in review. To read more top stories from 2015, click here.

Dan Turbyfill likes to get up early on game day and smell the freshly cut grass at Sun Devil Stadium. Dan Turbyfill in his office Dan Turbyfill chats with some new students at a Student Alumni Association meeting Sept. 9. Eighty-three students showed up to prepare a banner and activities for that Saturday’s Sun Devil football game against Cal Poly. Photo by: Charlie Leight/ASU News Download Full Image

This is hours before kickoff — the calm before the storm — when barely a soul is around.

He has performed the ritual for every home football game in the past five years, anticipating the electric atmosphere that will shortly follow — tailgate parties, the sounds of the marching band, the sea of maroon and gold, Sparky thrusting his pitchfork in the air, the players roaring out of the locker room and onto the field topped off by an explosive fireworks display.  

“It’s the most wonderful time of the year to be a Sun Devil,” Turbyfill said. “I want every ASU student to experience the same feelings and emotions that I do on game day, and instill that pride in them.”

As student program manager for the ASU Alumni Association, it’s Turbyfill’s job to get ASU students pumped up about the game, their academic careers and, perhaps most important, to encourage graduates to become ASU family members for life by joining the Alumni Association.

“I’m a first-generation college graduate in my family, so when I got that acceptance letter from ASU, it was the most extraordinary moment in my life,” Turbyfill said. “I had numerous ASU professors assist me in advancing my career, and I maintained excellent communication with them well after I graduated.”

Dan Turbyfill - Part 1 - Leadership:Students from Arizona State University on Vimeo.

Turbyfill left ASU after graduating in 1995 with a bachelor's in recreation and tourism management. He moved west, working in Southern California managing the Sports and Aquatics Division for the city of Manhattan Beach and, later, for the Pleasant Valley Recreation and Park District in Ventura, California.

He came back to Arizona in spring 1998 and worked for the town of Gilbert. Whatever downtime Turbyfill had — he was married with three children — he devoted to ASU in a volunteer capacity. He lectured students about his work, served as alumni chapter president and even sold roses at commencement — anything to give back to his alma mater.

“One day a good friend of mine looked at me and said, ‘Dan, why don’t you just work for ASU?’ ” Turbyfill said. “ASU was my passion and escape from my regular job at the time, but I didn’t know how to make it full-time work.”

That opportunity came in 2007 when ASU offered him a position as a special-events manager with the College of Public Service and Community Solutions. Later, Turbyfill was recruited by the Alumni Association in 2009 as its student program manager, overseeing the Medallion Scholarship Program, Legacy Scholarship Association and the Student Alumni Association, which recently hit the 2,000-member mark. Despite the heavy workload and long hours, Turbyfill says what he does is personally and professionally satisfying.

“I’ve seen students who came here as nervous freshmen and who had so many high expectations from their family and didn’t know if they could do it,” Turbyfill said. “I see them thrive today and doing well, and that is heartwarming.”

The familial atmosphere he nurtures is gratifying. But it works both ways.

The ASU community embraced Turbyfill during one of the most painful episodes of his life when his wife, Laurie, was diagnosed with muscular system atrophy, a terminal disorder that affects the body’s autonomic functions like breathing and digestion.

“The ASU community just surrounded me with their love and support. I was able to take compassionate leave so I was able to be at home with Laurie,” Turbyfill said. “Students would bring me meals at night and doughnuts in the morning, or offered to watch Laurie while I went grocery shopping or did work-related things. Others left us beautiful notes of support, saying, ‘Love you, Dan.’ It was very heartwarming.”

After Laurie died in June 2013, Turbyfill leaned into the warm embrace of the university ­­— a comfort he’s still feeling.

Last semester he went back to school to pursue his master’s in public administration, and two years ago he volunteered in the equipment room to prepare the football team for Camp Tontozona in Payson.

Speaking of his connection to the ASU football team, when football coach Todd Graham first stepped foot in Sun Devil Stadium after being hired in 2011, it was Turbyfill who gave the coach his first ASU wristband. It read, “I am a Sun Devil.”

The motto might as well have been scripted for Turbyfill, whose campus office reflects his commitment with a dense decorative collage of maroon and gold — from personalized license plates to a computer mouse in the shape of a Sun Devil football helmet.

The only thing that seems to be missing is that distinct scent of fresh-cut turf in Sun Devil Stadium.

Dan Turbyfill - part 2 from Arizona State University on Vimeo.

Reporter , ASU News