A Love for Science, Bread and Everything in Between

Dusty Dowse baking breadAs undergraduates filed into their seats in 107 DPC for their last introduction to neuroscience lecture, former students and fellow faculty members filled in the back row. An email had circulated throughout various departments that professor Harold (Dusty) Dowse, would be giving his last formal lecture at the University of Maine.

Like he did in so many of his lectures, Dowse wove in anecdotes and stories. He also talked about his research, his contributions to the field of biological science and his life outside the university.

As the lecture came to a close, the hall erupted in a thunder of applause. He stood, smiling as he scanned the lecture hall filled with familiar faces. He will miss the way lecturing creates a tranquil space in his mind.

He remembers his first lecture in comparative anatomy 35 years ago, in which he explained that the human ear was evolutionarily formed from the jaw of a shark.

He remembers the laughter of his two young daughters dancing off the walls as they raced around his office in rolly chairs after they got out of school.

He remembers pushing a cart piled high with dissected cats and sharks, leaking bodily fluids and formaldehyde, across campus to be disposed of after his last semester teaching comparative anatomy lab, his first Umaine teaching position.

Today, on the eve of his retirement, his office is proof of his many years as a professor —  neuroscience textbooks, journals and scientific papers cover every available surface.

“He is totally unique. Everything about him,” said Mary Tyler, a UMaine professor of biology.  “The way he runs his lab, the way he keeps his office– with a rug, a plant and classical music playing– his facade.  I love his beard and his long hair. He really is all heart. Despite the fact that he might appear gruff, he is a softhearted, truly wonderful person.”

Though his normal attire consists of jeans, a flannel and a decorative dew rag, that was not always the case.  In the early 80’s, he could be spotted giving a lecture in a tie and a sports jacket adorned with leather elbow pads; the same sports jacket that once belonged to a Harvard professor.

Though he has mixed feelings about retiring, he is excited to turn his focus to another passion: bread.

Dusty baking pizza

He has been baking bread for half a century, a skill acquired from his step-father. His house is equipped with a professional wood-fired oven. He is the director of education for the Maine Grain Alliance, a nonprofit organization whose mission is to provide opportunities for members of the community to learn and share how to best grow and use traditional grains. 70-year-old Dowse’s next endeavor is his professional bakery, named Lammas Day Bakers, named after the Celtic day of festivals.

He views baking — and science — as a process in constant adaption, with a forever fleeting finish line.

“The more you know, the better it will be. You never see an end to it,” said Dowse. “What is the point to do anything if you finish and say, well I’m good at it, and move on. No matter how good you get, there is always something to learn.  Every time I bake, I learn something. Every time I come into the lab and do an experiment or do an analysis, I learn something.”

Dowse is highly respected in the neuroscience community at UMaine and nationwide. He has published over 50 papers, two in Nature and one in Science magazine and is known around campus for his deep-belly laugh, long wiry beard and hair that reaches halfway down his back. His life is filled with bread, motorcycles, martial arts, poetry, guns and beer — the rural version of a renaissance man.

His lectures are described as engaging, unique and entertaining. Between slides of neurons and brain anatomy, pictures of the Rolling Stones, bread and his old “biking buddy Rob” are a common occurrence.

“I think if you do just what you are doing, and have a very narrow range of study, you are top heavy, in a sense,” said Dowse.  “You have to fill in around the edges with everything else, all the way to literature and art. Everything has to balance, otherwise your work is this tiny thin column that can blow in the wind.”

Dowse grew up in Albany, N.Y. and attended Amherst College for his undergraduate degree in biology. He continued his education at New York University and received his doctorate degree in biology in 1971. After giving a research seminar at the University of Alaska, he was offered and accepted into a postdoctoral research program. But due to lack of funding, he later received a letter rescinding his acceptance.

So Dowse and his wife, Patricia, headed for New York’s Catskill Mountains.  For four years he worked as a master electrician until he took up the art of cabinetmaking. In 1975, the couple packed up their things and made their way to Maine with twenty goats in their wake.

For the next few years Dowse worked a variety of jobs including short-order cook at a truck stop, cabinetmaker, and bulldozer operator. One breezy summer day in 1989, (Why was he around campus?) Dowse wandered into Deering Hall at UMaine, intrigued by the greenhouses he had happened to see on campus.

After inquiring about work, he was sent to Murray Hall, home of the Department of Zoology. “I’m not looking for a work study job, I am inquiring about a faculty position,” Dowse told Frank Roberts, the department chair. The two chatted about Dowse’s research on mice, but mostly about mountain climbing and running. Roberts took down his contact information and Dowse thought that was the end of it.

The Friday before Dowse was to take a job as a meat cutter he received a call from Roberts looking to meet with him.

He walked out of the meeting teaching comparative anatomy lab.

For seven years, at the end of every semester, Dowse would receive a letter from the president’s office saying that his position was terminal and to not expect to be re-appointed. But that didn’t deter him.

“It was like I was hanging on the outside of the building with my fingernails in the crevices of the concrete, dangling off the walls,” he said.

“I think the reason Dusty was able to stay was because he was willing to do anything,” said Tyler, who was teaching the comparative anatomy lecture at the time. “There would be a course that needed to be taught and he would teach it no questions asked.”

In 1980, Dowse had the opportunity to teach his first lecture. Tyler was planning to visit her husband, Seth, who was on his sabbatical leave in Washington state, but she needed someone to teach comparative anatomy. Dowse was the perfect candidate.

“Two things you have to know when you are in a position like that: One, you can’t make any mistakes, two, you have to have some luck,” said Dowse.

In (year), six years after teaching his first UMaine lab, Dowse was awarded a tenure-track position in 1986. He celebrated by getting his ear pierced.

Throughout his long 35-year-long career at UMaine, Dowse taught nearly 30 different courses, ranging from mathematics to biomedical engineering. If he didn’t know something, he learned it. If the department didn’t have a professor for a course, he taught it.

“I think what impresses me most is, well, a lot of things impress me about him. Number one, he is extremely smart,” said Tyler.  “He has such a quick mind.”

He even taught a lecture on anatomy for the art department’s figure drawing class. “We would have a couple models pose nude in front of the class, and I would have a skeleton and I would do a whole lecture on anatomy for artists. It was a lot of fun,” said Dowse.

At one point in time, Dowse was professor of biology, cooperating professor in mathematics and cooperating professor of biological engineering. He served as associate director of the School of Biology and Ecology for three years.

Looking back on his career, he remembers the time where he had 48 hours to prepare for a course he had never taught before.

It was two days before the semester started when the director of the school approached Dowse. He was told that he would no longer be teaching anatomy and physiology, but would be teaching parasitology. Though both biological, the courses were as similar as a pinecone and piece of coral.

Usually, the last minute course change would not have been a problem. But the parasitology lab was scheduled to meet at the same time as Dowse’s special section of neuroanatomy, which a dozen students had specifically requested.  So what to do?

He taught them both labs — simultaneously.

Because the two courses were serendipitously placed next to each other in Murray Hall, Dowse could easily stride back and forth between the two rooms.

“I’d walk in and work on the lumbosacral plexus in the cat, then walk back to the other room and start dealing with dissections of seagulls to find parasites. That was a high point or a low point depending how you look at it,” said Dowse with a chuckle.

In 2013, Dowse was recognized by the School of Natural Sciences, Forestry, and Agriculture with the Outstanding Teaching Award.

“I think he is a great professor, students really respond to him. He’s got great anecdotes and stories that he weaves into his lectures,” said Kristy Townsend, a new UMaine assistant professor of biology and former student of Dowse’s.

And students agree.

His teaching philosophy is simple: don’t ever read off the powerpoint slides. He believes that in order for a lecture to be beneficial to a student, it must offer a different approach than a standard textbook would.

“A bulleted list, or the information you find in the textbook, is two dimensional, sometimes even one dimensional.  If the lecture is not three dimensional, why bother giving it? Lectures are extremely useful, if done right,” he said.

He compares his teaching philosophy to the book “Dancing Wu Li Masters: An Overview of the New Physics,” written by Gary Zukav. In the book, the Wu Li Masters would draw individuals toward enlightenment by dancing. In the book, Zukav explained that if you want people to understand the basis of quantum physics, do it by dancing.

“When you’re giving a lecture, you’re dancing. Here is the material and I’m gonna dance it to you so that you understand it,” said Dowse.

Dusty Dowse photo
Dusty’s faculty photo on the School of Biology & Ecology’s website.

“When I walked into Dusty’s class, my first thought was this guy looks like a biker dude. My assumption was not far from the truth,” said Dylan Cole, third-year biology student.  “But it turns out he is a biker dude that knows an incredible amount about how the brain works.  His classes were interesting because one moment he is showing us pictures of him shooting guns out of his hot tub, and the next he is talking about the brain in the fourth dimension.”

His teaching strategies allowed students to think for themselves, instead of regurgitating information. Students felt his exams were difficult– but worth it.

Tricia VanKirk, who is finishing up her Ph.D. in Dowse’s lab, said she appreciated Dowse’s “laid back,” advising because it allowed room for independent thought and growth.

“He is pretty hands-off as an advisor, and I don’t mean that in a negative way at all,” VanKirk said.  “He is not constantly hounding you on where your project is at. He lets you go at your own pace and learn as you go. I think that’s really important.”

For the last couple years, Dowse has not taught a formal class during the spring semester. Instead, he used his time to focus on his research, and advising his four graduate students.

When Dowse received laboratory space from John Ringo in the early years of his UMaine career, he began using fruit flies for his studies after he developed an allergy to mice. To this day, Dowse is still contacted from scientists around the world looking to replicate his methods and experiments studying cardiac rhythmicity in the fruit fly, which serves as a model of mammalian biology in order to explore human disease and development.

“I go where problems lead me. That’s why I would not have done well as a staff scientist,” said Dowse. “I like to come in in the morning, turn on the lights, and say What am I going to do today? The things that I study are all logical consequence involving oscillators–the 24-hour biological clock, the periodicity in the flies song and the heart pacemakers. They all fascinate me, and always have. The math underlying oscillating systems is nothing short of beautiful.

He says we owe a lot to the fruit fly, and the history books say we do too. The fruit fly broke open the field of developmental biology in the 20th century. Though many scientists contributed, Dowse credits Thomas Hunt Morgan, an American evolutionary biologist, geneticist, embryologist, and author who won the Nobel Prize in Physiology & Medicine in 1933 for his discoveries linking chromosomes and heredity, using Drosophila melanogaster.

Fruit flies prove great model organisms due to their small size, simple diet and inexpensive maintenance of large numbers in the laboratory.  Their life cycles are also extremely short– only two weeks– so multiple generations can be created within a matter of months.

Townsend sat in on a guest lecture given by Dowse during her undergraduate years at UMaine during her neuroanatomy lecture.  She had no idea at the time that the same man would be on the search committee that would hire her as professor of biology when Dowse retired.

“I was fascinated by him and his research. I could tell that he was the laid back member of the committee that didn’t push very hard, but I could also tell that he was the one I wanted to have approval from.  If that’s the person you are taking over for, you want to make sure they think you are the right person.”

Though they both have a great wealth of knowledge pertaining to the field of neuroscience, their research varies drastically. While Dowse works with drosophila looking at circadian rhythms and genetics, Townsend’s research focuses on molecular differences in mammalian brains, specifically, mechanisms by which the body maintains or loses energy balance.

“I don’t feel like I’m stepping in his shoes. I’m definitely inheriting a course and some lab supplies from him, but Dusty is irreplaceable,” said Townsend.