Dr. Drew Talley, Associate Professor, Environmental and Ocean Sciences

Photo of Dr. Drew Talley

Interview by Nadia Nguyen, Sophomore, Communication Studies

The Basics: What’s your story? Describe a unique aspect of your everyday perspective that impacts your teaching.

In my teaching and my research, I spend a lot of time thinking about how places, things, and ideas that seem quite disparate are often deeply interconnected. This may be a result of my formal training (oceanography is often a deeply interdisciplinary field), my work on habitat connectivity in a variety of habitat types, or my decades-long work with the San Diego nonprofit Ocean Discovery Institute, that employs STEM training to change lives in the hyper-diverse community of City Heights. Most likely, it is all of these, but in short it makes me pay a lot of attention to diversity - diversity of processes, habitats, organisms, disciplines, and people, and how critical this diversity is to success.

How do you get to know your students?

One of the many great things about teaching at USD is the focus on small class size, hands-on experience, and a dedication to caring for students in a holistic way.  I usually start the semester trying to find out more about my students - where are they from? What is there experience with the course topic? I also try to share with them aspects of my own life. Students often have a cartoonish view of professors, and “humanizing” us makes them more likely to view us as allies in their efforts to master the course material.

Why is this your chosen field?

This one is easy - I get to work on fascinating topics, in amazing places, with people I love.

Who supported you along the way?

There isn’t room to list them! The usual suspects, of course - my sisters and brother, my parents, and my friends (some who I have known since 7th grade). Shortly before graduate school, I met my wife, and she, my mentors at Scripps Institution of Oceanography (Lisa Levin, Paul Dayton, and Brad Werner), and my colleagues at Ocean Discovery Institute (Shara Fisler, Lindsay Goodwin, Travis Kemnitz) have been…well, I literally would not be here if it weren’t for them.

How do you create a collaborative learning environment in the classroom?

I think that the key is actually in this question. Making it clear that the faculty/student relationship is not adversarial, but instead is collaborative, is critical. I try to make that point from day one of class - my job is to help the students master the material, and I want to see them succeed. I believe this so deeply and sincerely, I think that it permeates everything I do with the students - it is in my syllabus, in my exams, and in every interaction.

How do you get to know your students?

I usually start the semester asking them about where they are from, what they feel are going to be their challenges during the semester, and what they are excited about. For students in my LLC, I make it a requirement that they come to my office at least once in the first two weeks, so they know where to find me, and we can spend 10 minutes or so getting to know each other.

What is the single most important thing you want students to know?

That “Imposter Syndrome” is real, and we all suffer from it at some point. I would be much more worried about a student who *never* felt they didn't belong. But I ALSO want them to realize that every single one of them is here because they *deserve* to be here. And it is ok to feel insecure, to fail at something, and to not be great at everything.

How do you create equitable learning environments? 

I think about it every time I step into the classroom, or talk to a student, or sit in a meeting planning departmental or college activities. Inequality begets inequality, and the only way to mitigate it is to be vigilant.

How can higher education do better?

We can work harder to be inclusive. To paraphrase our own Dr. Lisa Nunn: “excellent K-12 education can look like intellectual ability”. We cannot (and should not) expect diverse students to necessarily come to the university with high GPA, SAT, or other commonly used metrics. The better, more difficult thing to try and assess for students is drive and potential. It is not as easy as setting numerical standards, but in the long run, it will make higher education better and more reflective of our society.

I am proud to see that our Dean and our President quite clearly recognize how important this is, and work hard to improve USD!

Proudest teaching/career moment?

Hmmm…take your pick: 

  1. In 2004, I worked with a high school freshman named Anai Novoa in Bahía de los Ángeles, Mexico. Anai is from City Heights, and through the Ocean Discovery Institute program, she ended up helping me do research on islands. We stayed in touch, and after graduation, she went to UCSB, where she struggled but persevered and graduated with a BS in Biology. She then did a Masters degree at USD in Environmental and Ocean Sciences, working with my wife (the other Dr. Talley) and I on a project, and is now at Scripps Institution of Oceanography working on her PhD. I would say I am proud, but that suggests I somehow am responsible - rather, this determined young woman charted a new path for herself, and is now a role model for other kids in her community.
  2. This Fall, I received the William A. Niering Outstanding Educator Award from the Coastal and Estuarine Research Federation. I accepted the award at the biannual meeting, accompanied by my wife (a former student of the late Dr. Niering), daughter, in-laws, and friends. Only nine of these awards have been given out since 2001, and I was humbled, thrilled, and proud to have my efforts recognized.

Where can we find you outside of the classroom?

With my wife and daughter! Maybe in the tidepools, wetlands, or in Baja California with Ocean Discovery Institute students, visiting family in Connecticut – basically out enjoying the same things I spend my career studying!

When is a classroom environment most productive?

When students are integrating ideas and seeing how it impacts their own lives.

If we're sitting here a year from now celebrating what a great year it's been for you in this role, what did you achieve together with USD?

I helped make our campus more inclusive, and changed lives at least a little by helping students feel more confident.

Bonus question: “What do you believe that other people think is insane?”

I am convinced that Fundulus parvipinnis (the California killifish) is the most charming, amazing fish species there is. I even named my website after it (fundulus.net).