Tom Lee: From Thermal Vents to Poets Laureate
Lainey S. Cronk, September 5, 2008
Tom Lee, assistant professor of education, came to PUC in the summer of 2006. He lives here with his wife of over thirty years, Jo, and his dog Cody. Tom and Jo have three grown-up sons.
Classical music plays mellow in the background. A life-size red and white model of deep-sea tubeworms fills one corner of the office. There’s a map of the world on the wall and poetry books on the shelf.
The science curios in the office of education professor Tom Lee indicate that he has not forgotten his love of marine biology, even though he concluded 18 years as an academy science teacher to come teach secondary education at PUC.
Tom’s been on three oceanographic research cruises to study hydrothermal vents. The research vessels would set sail from Seattle and go straight off 200 miles to a place called the Juan de Fuca ridge in the northeast Pacific Ocean. One trip was a week long, one was three weeks, and one was a full month.
“Life on a ship is just a real interesting thing,” Tom recounts. “Once we’re on the ship, we are a part of the science crew and so we have to all take our turns standing watch… the ship runs 24 hours a day. Everybody has to do his or her part.” Tom would be on watch for four hours and off watch for eight. With this strange cycle, sleeping was sometimes hard: “Sometimes it works and sometimes it just doesn’t work and you get really tired!”
The work itself could be monotonous, collecting samples the same way time after time. When he wasn’t on watch or sleeping, Tom spent time writing at the computer or helping the scientists on board with their tasks. There was also time to be on the deck, “to just sit in the sun or watch whatever kinds of deck operations are happening.”
Every so often Tom rummages through a drawer or shelf to pull out a picture or object that illustrates what he’s talking about. A model of a weedy sea dragon, for istance, which looks like a much-enlarged sea horse. “They’re just cool animals,” he exclaims, recounting SCUBA diving during a two-week visit to Australia. That, he says, “was the funnest couple of weeks of my whole life. It was so new and we got to do all this cool diving—Australia’s just a neat, weird place.”
Tom’s love of marine science began early on, when he watched Sea Hunt and Jacques Cousteau as a kid. He’s also been playing acoustic guitar since 9th grade—only now he plays ragtime, Mississippi-style blues, Celtic and folk instead of rock n’ roll! But about 12 or 13 years ago he started thinking about Classical music: “What is it that allows this music to be played a couple hundred years later?” he wondered. “What’s going on with that stuff that people still listen do it?”
Simultaneously, he developed a deep interest in poetry. “It’s really something when you think that people can string these separate words together in this really economical way and it generates all sorts of pictures in your head and thoughts and physical reactions.”
Walt Whitman got him started, and he has an ongoing list of favorites. He pulls books off the shelf and enthusiastically describes Mary Oliver’s latest collection of poetry. “I can read this and say, ‘That’s exactly what I would have wanted to say if I could think of those words!’”
He’s thinking it would be interesting to work his way through the U.S. poets laureate and see what they had to say. “What is it about these people that they speak for America?” he muses.
From Billy Collins to his dog Cody, Tom keeps an abundance of topics in his brain. And if you ever run out of after-dinner conversation topics, just ask him to brush you up on hydrothermal vents…