Biologist teaches and inspires his students

By Wayne Bryan Originally Published June 23, 2013 at 12:00 a.m.
Updated June 21, 2013 at 11:35 a.m.
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PHOTO BY: Rusty Hubbard

Jess Kelly, who teaches biology at Ouachita Baptist University in Arkadelphia, was named the most inspiring professor by OBU students for the 2012-13 school year.

Brianne Baley, a biology student at Ouachita Baptist University, said she is enjoying her summer research project and that her teacher, Jess Kelly, makes the class fun.

“He cares about what the students think, and he is passionate about the research. He wants to make it fun,” she said, before taking to the field for several hours of work. “He is easygoing, and we talk about a lot of things, from his own college experiences to the crime scenes he has worked.”

After all, the students should be happy because their project is literally a metaphor for happiness — dead pigs in the sunshine.

“We have placed pig carcasses in the woods and in fields, and we check on how long it takes for them to decompose,” explained Kelly, an assistant professor of biology. “We can follow how long it has been by the state of the carcasses and the insects that are around.”

Kelly, who was a police officer in Texas before earning advanced degrees in biology, said the project was designed to teach the real science behind what he calls the “CSI phenomena,” which is the popularity of television police dramas during the past decade that feature forensic scientists providing evidence and solving crimes.

“We are creating classes that use popular culture to show examples of applied science, like the Chemistry of Art and the Physics of NASCAR,” Kelly said. “The students are drawn in with the subject; then, oops, they’ve learned something.”

While creating interesting research and an easygoing manner helps get the students involved, it is the caring part that Baley mentioned that has had a real impact on the students.

“I’ve never had a class with him before this project,” Baley said. “I play softball, and he comes to the games a lot. He often talks to us about what we want to do in the future.”

At the end of this school year, Kelly was named the Lavell Cole Most Inspirational Professor for 2013 by a vote of the students at Ouachita Baptist, a big honor for a teacher in his first year as a full-time member of the OBU faculty.

“It was a shock,” Kelly said. “It was funny. I was invited to the dinner, but my radar never went off, and I didn’t RSVP. People kept asking me if I was going, and I finally did.”

He thinks he might have won because he teaches general biology to majors and nonmajors alike, so he knows more students across campus than some other professors.

“My jaw dropped when they called my name,” Kelly said. “But the best part of my job is these kids.”

He said his own academic career and life have been shaped by a few teachers who made an extra effort to work with him as an individual and who seemed to care about him as a person.

“I try to treat all of my students that way,” Kelly said. “I have each student fill out a card, and I ask them to tell me something unique about themselves. If they play football, I let them know I go to the games. If they are in music and they play a recital, I go.

“All the students are valuable to us. Every one of them can be great.”

Kelly ends many of his emails to students with, “Be great this week,” he said.

Kelly’s personal goal is to know every student in his classes in two weeks, to show that he knows them as individuals.

“I want them to know they are meaningful, and I want to create an environment where they know I care,” Kelly said. “Then they will work harder so they won’t let me down, but they can’t. I just want them to take another step toward their goals.”

Kelly had his own career goal from a very early age, but when the time came, he found out he was just too big for the job.

“I had always said I wanted to be a jet pilot in the military,” he said. “My father retired after 33 years in the U.S. Navy, and at one time, I was looking to go to the U.S. Naval Academy, but I was already 6-4, 225, and if I grew any more, I would not fit in the planes.”

It was football that was the center of attention when Kelly went to college, but his faith also made a difference in what school he attended.

“I met some players from Baylor University at a high school track meet when I was 12 or 13 years old,” he said. “They were tough guys who were also strong Christians, and that impressed me.”

He was a Baylor Bear but was injured in his freshman year.

“My knee was gruesomely injured, and after I made it back to the field, it was re-injured without anyone hitting me,” Kelly said. “I told the trainer that I just wanted to be able to walk.”

Kelly said he is a candidate for knee replacement but that he hopes he can wait five more years until he is 50.

He said he was an English major at the time because of the work of an extraordinary teacher, but after Kelly lost his football scholarship, he left Baylor.

Kelly became a policeman in Texas and married his wife, Elizabeth. However, he came to question his decision to be a police officer.

“I was stabbed through the arm, and then I was shot,” he said. “A bullet hit my vest in the back and the bullet broke up and about an eighth of it went under the skin in my back. I started to think I had not made the right career choice.

“I would come home and see the relief in Elizabeth, and she would start to cry, so I left the force.”

Kelly entered Tyler Junior College, and as he described it, one of his biology professors got him hooked.

“He placed a slide with pond water on it under the microscope and told me to look at it,” Kelly said. “It was another world in there. When I took my eyes away and looked around, more than an hour had passed, and I knew biology was for me.”

The newly inspired biologist earned a bachelor’s degree in biology and chemistry and a master’s degree in limnology, the study of fresh-water biology, at Stephen F. Austin University in Texas. While his wife worked on her doctorate in sociology, Kelly studied biology — both returning to Baylor, where they had met.

“We were the first married couple to graduate with their doctorates at the same time,” Kelly said.

Kelly’s dissertation was on fish living in a lake in Mexico, and his research included suggestions to protect and improve the water quality of the lake. After graduation, he became an environmental investigator for the state of Texas, bringing together biology and his police work and the study of forensics.

In 2011, his wife was hired as chair of the sociology department at Ouachita Baptist, and Kelly and the family moved to Arkadelphia.

“Tim Knight, dean of the School of Natural Sciences, found me some work teaching part time,” Kelly said. “Then I was hired full time for this past year.”

Kelly said his family enjoys the “slower pace and friendly people in a small town” like Arkadelphia.

“We are putting down deep roots here,” he said. “I am not a big-city type of guy, and with all the rivers and lakes nearby, I can relax. We are really comfortable here.”

Kelly said the student-driven award he was given a few weeks ago will only make him work harder for the students of OBU.

“I want to let them know how much [the faculty] all think of them,” he said. “We get to love them here, and that is when learning happens.”

Staff writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at (501) 244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

Tri-Lakes Edition Writer Wayne Bryan can be reached at 501-244-4460 or wbryan@arkansasonline.com.

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