LaBarbera humbled by U of C career

By Sam Cate-Gumpert

Michael LaBarbera, an evolutionary biology professor at the U of C, spoke last Thursday about how his interests and passions have changed over the years he has spent at the U of C. The talk was the latest installment of Rockefeller Chapel’s ongoing “What Matters to Me and Why” brown bag lunch series.

LaBarbera, who arrived at the University in 1978, reflected on how what drives him, both academically and personally, has shifted markedly in the past 30 years. “When I arrived, I was interested in being smart, famous, getting accolades, being a good teacher, and, perhaps most of all, tenure,” he said. “Also, a stable relationship.”

But the “U of C is a humbling place,” he continued. LaBarbera realized that he was surrounded by “incredibly smart people,” that, more likely than not, he was “not nearly as smart of most of colleagues.”

“Gathering the crumbs of these smarter people can keep you busy for 20 to 30 years,” LaBarbera said, laughing. The stimulating and challenging atmosphere at the University transformed what he set out to accomplish and to gain.

One value that became more important, as notoriety and accolades slowly fell by the wayside, was perseverance in the search for the truth. LaBarbera commented on how science is continually being remade and redefined, and how changing interpretations imply the continual “winnowing out” of wrong conclusions and bad evidence.

This constant striving for knowledge has made him “increasingly incensed” by people who, in his view “dismiss reality.” He has no patience for those who are “redefining reality for ideology,” like deniers of the “self-evident truth” of evolution, he said.

LaBarbera also emphasized the importance of being a part of the University community.

“I don’t much care that I’m not famous,” he said, adding that he has traded his desire for accolades for “planting roots at an institution.” He said that he isn’t interested in the “power plays,” of playing one job offer against another; instead, LaBarbera has become increasingly active in the alumni networks, and in undergraduate teaching. Arriving at the U of C in the late 1970s, he saw a place that was much “lonelier, colder, grayer” than it is today. He saw lost and miserable undergrads, a hard teaching environment, and no support or outreach for alumni.

He has tried, in the past thirty years, to “nurture the institution,” and to “make the U of C into a more humane” place. Part of this involves another value that has carried over since he first arrived: his love of teaching. “The most gratifying kind of teaching,” LaBarbera said, is “one-on-one interaction.” This kind of interaction allows him to help his students have the “multi-layered experience” needed to appreciate the disappearing diversity of the natural world.

Another facet of LaBarbera’s efforts on this front are his travels. He globe-trots with alumni, giving lectures and tours in places like Machu Pichu. He hopes this has helped alumni continue to live the life of the mind inspired by the University. It also gives him a chance to capture “portraits of the natural world,” one which might not be here all that much longer, he said.

LaBarbera believes that, partly through his work, the University has slowly transformed, becoming more human and humane while “retaining its tradition of inquiry that maintains the intellect.”