You're the Inspiration: Beth Braker

By Dick Anderson Photo by Kevin Burke

Over the years, Braker has taken about 200 students to Costa Rica to do research at La Selva—and her work there isn't done yet

Beth Braker
Professor of Biology
Years at Occidental: 33

What attracted you to Occidental? So many things! I was searching for a position at a liberal arts college, and Oxy had a lot of what I was looking for: an emphasis on student-faculty research, the opportunity to work with students away from campus on field trips and for international study, and a commitment to social justice.  

What is your favorite course? Any course in which we are able to go learn about the natural world, on campus, off campus around Los Angeles, or further afield in the amazing, biodiverse California landscapes.  

What will you miss about teaching? Witnessing that moment of connection and inspiration when students first stand at the base of a giant sequoia, are able to recognize what species of bee is visiting a flower, or explain why a plant grows in one place and not another.

Can you talk about your history with international research and education in Costa Rica? Since I was a graduate student, I have been affiliated with the Organization for Tropical Studies (OTS), a consortium of international universities and research organizations that operates four research sites in Costa Rica and South Africa and offers educational programming in both countries. I did my Ph.D. research at one of the field sites, La Selva Research Station, and taught in OTS’ graduate courses. After I joined the Oxy faculty, I was thrilled to be able to create opportunities for Oxy students to have an immersive research experience at La Selva, doing a range of projects on the importance of leaf-feeding insects to rainforest ecology. 

Professors Gretchen North, Shana Goffredi, and Beth Braker, kneeling, with their Oxy student researchers in Costa Rica in 2012.
Professors Gretchen North, Shana Goffredi, and Beth Braker, kneeling, with their Oxy student researchers in Costa Rica in 2012. 

Over the years, other Oxy colleagues joined the program with their students, most often Gretchen North and Shana Goffredi (but also Clair Morrissey, Amanda Zellmer, and John McCormack). We pieced together funding with grants from the National Science Foundation, the Endeavor Foundation, and from Oxy’s Richter program. Eventually Occidental was able to become a member of OTS, one of the only liberal arts colleges to be granted membership. This opened the door for Oxy students, with the support of our wonderful International Programs Office colleagues, to attend OTS field semester programs in South Africa and Costa Rica, and to receive funding from the Richter program to participate in faculty-led Richter research. 

In most years since I’ve been at Oxy, I’ve traveled with students to Costa Rica—about 200 students altogether—to do research projects. The most rewarding part of these trips has been to work collectively with my wonderful Oxy colleagues, our energetic and inspirational students, and the OTS staff in Costa Rica to create deeply meaningful and personally transformative scientific research experiences for students. 

What are your plans after Oxy? I will be focusing on my work as president and CEO of the Organization for Tropical Studies. When I am not traveling internationally for OTS, my husband and I will spend more time at our mountain cabin in Colorado, exploring other places in the Mountain West and around California, doing lots of hiking, visiting our adult sons, and most likely training a puppy.

“Beth was a reliable source of wisdom, sometimes more than I was prepared to ingest.”

Terry McGlynn ’93: My favorite moments as a biology major were field trips with Beth Braker. We traveled across Catalina Island and learned about conservation, non-native species, and island biogeography. We camped in gorgeous remote spots in desert areas, learned field methods in palm oases, and got to stop for date shakes. We collected bugs on campus and learned about urban biodiversity. Dr. Braker made sure that we spent time with actual practitioners working in the field, heard from experts from other institutions, and understood that science is international, multilingual, and collaborative.

I wasn’t the most prepared student—I never did research as an undergrad—and wasn’t quite sure why I was into biology. Nonetheless, Beth built an environment where all her students had the space to get excited about biodiversity, bugs, and integrating people into science. She was a master of culturally responsive teaching long before the term was coined, a philosophy embodied by her approach to research and teaching.

Beth started out as my professor, then became my adviser, and as I realized I wanted to go to grad school to do evolution, ecology, and bugs for a living, she became my mentor. She emerged as a role model, and over the decades she has been a valued friend. As my career path went down a pathway like Beth’s, she was a reliable source of wisdom, sometimes more than I was prepared to ingest. I learned from Beth how to manage being a good parent and equitable spouse while working as a professor. I saw firsthand what it means to practice reflexivity as an undergraduate mentor and teacher, and how to juggle the many demands of this job while being student-centered.

While I never joined Beth as a student on one of her trips to La Selva, on a score of occasions I’ve had the pleasure of overlapping with Beth and a cohort of her students at the field station in Costa Rica while I was doing my own work (often with my students). Each time, I got a kick out of watching Oxy students training into talented and curious investigators under her guidance. My deeply warm feelings for Beth stem from the privilege of seeing a career’s worth of her students benefit from her as much as I have.

Terry McGlynn ’93 is a professor of biology at Cal State Dominguez Hills.

“You will always be an inspiration to me and therefore impact future generations of scientists to come.”

Rachel Rodriguez ’98: Beth Braker’s expertise is in the field, in the outdoors, in the jungle. My first class with her was unlike any other class I had taken to that point. I found it so interesting, it enveloped me. Whether identifying birds or native plant species, being with her in the field/lab was pure joy. 

To this day I don’t know what she saw in me—a random third-year general bio major who didn’t initially have an interest in ecology—but I consider myself lucky. She encouraged and helped me write my own research project to conduct in the rainforest of Costa Rica. With her guidance I grew as both a student and a person. I found myself and my passion. Upon my return I worked in her lab using aerial photos to monitor native plant populations of Southern California.

Professor Braker was such a supportive and integral part of my Oxy experience that she became my inspiration to become a teacher, to share with my students a love of science and open their eyes to worlds beyond the classroom and the community in which they live. 

Later, again because of her belief in me and recommendation, I was able to go back to Costa Rica and mentor new teachers who were part of the master’s program at Oxy. I have since stepped up more as a leader in my own school, helping and supporting new teachers. She is and will forever be someone I look upon with awe in what she has accomplished in her remarkable life and career. 

Congratulations, Professor Braker, on your retirement from the classroom. Know that you will always be an inspiration to me and therefore impact future generations of scientists to come.

Rachel Rodriguez ’98 has been teaching at Pacoima Middle School since 1998. 

“Dr. Braker was always there if I needed ideas, direction, or inspiration to take the next step.”

Joan Dudney ’06: When I finally gathered enough courage to ask Dr. Braker for a letter of recommendation for graduate school, I was worried that she’d think I’d missed my opportunity or perhaps worse, she’d forgotten who I was. Much to my relief, she enthusiastically said yes, with a twist of playful impatience: “It’s about time,” she insisted.

Later that year, I matriculated at UC Berkeley, her alma mater, and somehow navigated the long and arduous task of obtaining a Ph.D. A few years after graduating, I started an assistant professorship at UC Santa Barbara, not far from Oxy, where I first learned to love field ecology. 

Braker lends a shoulder to Cruziohyla calcarifer in Costa Rica in 2017.
Braker lends a shoulder to Cruziohyla calcarifer in Costa Rica in 2017. Photo by Marc Campos

As I sit in my office overlooking Santa Cruz Island, I sometimes reminisce about the weeklong field expedition Dr. Braker organized for her students. Even the ferry to Santa Cruz Island was magical, as we boated alongside the largest pod of dolphins I’ve ever seen. I still remember glancing over at her brilliant smile wondering, “How is it possible that I get class credit for this?”

Every morning, her students and I would hop into the back of a truck and head out to a randomized plot to look for invertebrates. Though admittedly I was more excited about all the new species of wildflowers, I was happy to sift through the litter, trying to identify the incredibly diverse world of animals without vertebrae. Dr. Braker was the first person to show me that I could study outside. Until that class, I thought research was always conducted in cold, air-conditioned labs under microscopes. Small field classes like these are incredibly rare and yet so powerful for students. Dr. Braker’s long career facilitating these classes has inspired so many students to discover their passion for ecology and the great outdoors.

Dr. Braker encouraged me to apply for the Richter Fellowship, which sends students abroad to conduct independent research. I was chosen and elected to go to Belize, where I immersed myself in women-led grassroots conservation efforts. Working alongside kind­hearted and hardworking indigenous women inspired me to apply to the Peace Corps. Again, Dr. Braker enthusiastically supported my decision, at a time when I really needed a positive force to propel me through the feelings of fear and anxiety about the two-year commitment. Without such a strong, intelligent, and encouraging female scientist in my life, I would not be the scientist I am today.

I come from a low-income family and my brave but undereducated single mother had little idea about how to navigate college and graduate school. Dr. Braker was always there if I needed ideas, direction, or inspiration to take the next step. It made all the difference in the world knowing that I had this incredibly powerful, insightful, and joyful human being in my court. I can only hope to pay Dr. Braker’s generosity and kindness forward.

Joan Dudney ’06 is an assistant professor at UC Santa Barbara.