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Ecology and Evolutionary Biology

Rebecca S. Barak ’04

High School Science Teacher

For as long as I can remember, I have been interested in nature. In third grade, I fed the turtle in the science room, and took the chameleons, Michael Jordan and Scottie Pippen, home for winter break. (There was only one fatality.) In high school, I dragged my family from Illinois to Washington State so I could see “the [temperate] rainforest.” It was during my AP Biology class when I learned that ecology was a scientific discipline—you could study plants and animals for real! So I chose ecology and evolutionary biology as a major long before I got to Princeton.

Princeton’s Department of Ecology and Evolutionary Biology (EEB) allowed me to engage in field and lab activities, while also studying theoretical ecology and conservation policy. I was taught by amazing professors. Some were at the cutting edge of climate change research and endangered species conservation, and others had alter-egos and went dumpster diving for old computer parts. As part of my ecology of fields and woodlands class, I walked the Delaware & Raritan Canal towpath and learned to identify all the native trees. In the spring of my junior year, I was able to study abroad in Panama, where I did research that involved snorkeling and hiking through the rainforest (the tropical one this time) with my fellow Pana-maniacs. The EEB department was heaven! Even now, I still gush to my students about my experiences studying ecology at Princeton, and show them the picture of me holding a sloth.

Passion for education

Yes, my students. Since leaving Princeton, I have become a high school teacher. I teach chemistry, biology, and environmental science. Besides nurturing my love for nature, Princeton helped me to realize my passion for education. 

When it was time for me to think about what I wanted to “be,” I looked back on all of my volunteer work and summer jobs, and realized that I was already on the path to becoming a teacher, even though I hadn’t known. I promptly joined the Program in Teacher Preparation. I found that teaching is the best vehicle for me to share my excitement for ecology, and try to foster environmental progress by getting kids’ hands dirty. My experiences in the EEB department and the teacher prep program have helped me to develop a curriculum that allows students to engage in scientific research, and prepares them to face current and future environmental challenges. Even though I love teaching high school, I couldn’t leave the world of higher learning too far behind, and am also working on my M.S. thesis in plant biology, studying invasive species management at Northwestern University and the Chicago Botanic Garden. Just as I did at Princeton, I am pursuing my passions in both ecology and education.

I am so thankful to the EEB department and the Program in Teacher Preparation for setting me on this path. I recently had my first child (my tiniest student), and I can’t wait to take him on his first nature walk down the towpath.