Persistence, Passion and Community: An Educator’s Unique Path to His Master’s Degree

Mark Eastburn carried the banner for the Sciences at Graduate Convocation 2017
Mark Eastburn '17 MS conducts field research


VILLANOVA, Pa. – Do you remember Green Fruit Loop? She is the green anole, a lizard native to the Southeastern U.S., that Villanova Master’s student and elementary school teacher Mark Eastburn ’17 MS helped rescue from an organic salad container shipped from Florida to Princeton, N.J., where he teaches. The story made national news last winter when Eastburn made a home for the lizard in his classroom. We are happy to report that while their journeys have not been easy, Eastburn and Green Fruit Loop are both thriving!

This May, Eastburn graduated from Villanova University with a Master of Science in Biology, and he led the procession of his fellow graduates as the banner carrier for the Sciences during the Graduate Convocation on May 20. We caught up with Eastburn, whose own unique journey included taking classes part time as a full-time teacher, field research throughout North and Central America and the support of a caring community after a fire nearly destroyed his home this past winter.

 

First, we have to ask … How is Green Fruit Loop doing?

Green Fruit Loop is still doing fine, although she never grew as large as I would've expected for a green anole that is at least a year and a half old. Some have suggested that I take her down to Florida and release her, but I’m not sure how well she’d fare due to her small size. For the time being, she has a nice home in my classroom, and my students enjoy her presence.


When that story first broke, you had some great quotes about our revulsion to certain creatures being learned, and that finding a lizard in your salad greens means that the leaves must be healthy and high quality—quite the opposite of what most of us would think. How can we start refocusing our lens to see things from a science perspective, or a more natural perspective? Or, how do we stop kids from losing that perspective?

I think that it is essential to model the right practices and behaviors when children are young, which is why I enjoy being an elementary school science teacher. My youngest students are in prekindergarten, and they practically fall over each other for a chance to hold Rosie, my pet tarantula. If I show them a snake, they are fascinated, not frightened, and yet it is an endless struggle to encourage adults to refrain from passing along their own aversions to spiders and snakes to students. I believe that my mission as a science teacher is to reconnect students to nature, since younger generations often do not have the same opportunities that I had to experience the outdoors. At the same time, I feel compelled to incorporate new technologies into my instruction, and not lose sight of skills that will be necessary for future careers, so I’ve always sought ways to integrate natural sciences with technology. To this end, I have been trying to build "nature spaces" at the schools in my district, where students can interact with native species like insects, isopods, frogs, salamanders and turtles, while at the same time using digital tools for observation, data collection, and simulation of relationships within ecosystems. Many recent studies have shown the positive effects of spending time in natural settings, and I really believe that this is necessary to our mental health.

What was your motivation to pursue your masters’ degree, and for persevering through the demands of a full-time job and a family?

Though I have a Bachelor's degree in Biology, I had been a Spanish teacher for several years when I started applying for graduate programs. My main goal was to get back into science, since that is where my greatest interest has always resided. Along with its stellar reputation, Villanova also offered many graduate classes in the evenings, which made it completely workable with my full-time teaching schedule. I wanted to build my skills in both field and laboratory research, so that I could better teach these skills to children. Over the course of my six years as a science teacher, my students have engaged in actual research on insects, turtles, spiders and plants, and students showcase their research projects to the wider Princeton community each year through their own “poster sessions.” My students have also reviewed several articles for Frontiers for Young Minds, an online neuroscience journal geared for children.

Your master’s thesis focused on three species of jumping spiders, particularly a rare vegetarian spider. What can you tell us about your research?

I started out researching Bagheera kiplingi, the only known plant-eating spider, which lives in an ant-plant ecosystem in Central America. My biggest surprise was that there is another type of spider, which has been identified as Frigga crocuta, that lives within the same ant-plant system as Bagheera kiplingi. I found this Frigga completely by accident, while I was searching for Bagheera kiplingi in Panama during the summer of 2014 on a Short-term Research Fellowship from the Smithsonian Tropical Research Institute. My preliminary tests have shown that Frigga crocuta is probably not a vegetarian; instead it eats small flies that visit acacia plants and uses the acacia plant as a space to keep safe from spider predators. Stinging ants protect these acacia plants from anything that comes near (including Villanova graduate students), and so a spider that can navigate life on the acacia plant by avoiding ant patrols is relatively safe from other dangers.

You worked with Dr. Robert Curry on your thesis. Can you talk a bit about how you chose your topic and how Dr. Curry served as a mentor for your work?

I originally decided to pursue a master’s in biology at Villanova because of Drs. Aaron Bauer and Todd Jackman’s work with lizards, but I have worked with Dr. Curry ever since I sent him a message after his presentation on Bagheera kiplingi during the graduate Research Prospectus course in the fall of 2012. Dr. Curry has been a great thesis mentor, and along with his advice on how my research should proceed, he helped me secure funding to conduct my studies in Texas, Oklahoma, Mexico, Costa Rica and Panama. In June 2015, he even accompanied me on an expedition to Panama in order to learn more about Frigga crocuta. Now that my master's degree is complete, I still hope to continue working with Dr. Curry on exploring these ant-plant-spider relationships more deeply. I have also used Dr. Curry’s advice on behavioral studies to shape my students’ research on local jumping spiders and turtles.


What does being selected to carry the banner for the Sciences at Convocation mean to you?

I am very grateful for the honor, and am very touched that my work at Villanova was appreciated. Throughout the course of my studies, I have been surrounded by professors and students who really care about science, and about each other. This endeavor has taken longer than I had originally anticipated, but I know that my experiences at Villanova—whether in the classroom, laboratory or in the field—have made me a better scientist and science educator. None of this would have been possible without all of the guidance, advice and patience of all of the professors and staff who helped me along the way. Above all else, I am carrying the banner for them.

Your family has been through some difficult times this year. How has Villanova supported you and your family?

My wife, Yamilka, and I have two children, Logan, 15, and Sharon, 13. We suffered a devastating house fire in December 2016, and we lost just about everything. Thankfully, no one was hurt. At Villanova, everyone was extremely accommodating, given my situation, and did everything necessary to ensure that I could still complete my thesis and receive my degree on schedule. Without the support that I received, I would not be walking at the graduation, and I am very grateful for all that everyone has done for me and my family.

Mark will be one of the panelists at a special Graduate Studies Information Session for Teachers on July 12

Mark Eastburn '17 MS and his family