What we leave behind
Marijo Gauthier-Bérubé, a Ph.D. student in the Department of Anthropology, remarks on the journey of Vaughn Bryant, founder of the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M.
An editorial by Marijo Gauthier-Bérubé
September 2016—I had just started my Ph.D. in the Department of Anthropology at Texas A&M University. I was full of doubts, second-guessing the graduate study idea that had brought me from Montreal, Canada, to College Station, Texas.
That same fall, the Department of Anthropology was celebrating its 45th anniversary. At one of the featured events, the founding members of the department gave talks, remembering the early days of the program. I was there listening, trying to grasp the legacy of these scholars. After a few talks, Dr. Vaughn Bryant took the floor, and I still carry his words with me today…
From Anthropology…to Botany
Dr. Bryant had a somewhat surprising background for someone who went on to found the Texas A&M University Department of Anthropology. After earning a B.A. in geography and an M.A in anthropology at the University of Texas, he became interested in palynology, the study of pollen and related substances. He was interested in what analyzing ancient pollen from archeological sites could tell us about the ancient environment and our ancestors’ diets.
He wanted to pursue a doctoral degree and to continue studying ancient pollen as his research. Initially he viewed a Ph.D. in archaeology as his only option. However, Dr. Bryant was not interested in excavating an archeological site, as was then required for a doctorate in archaeology.
His solution was to obtain a doctorate through University of Texas Department of Botany. “I was the weirdo of the department,” recalls Dr. Bryant, smiling. “They wanted me to take a year of undergraduate classes in biology, but I said that I did not have the time.” Instead, he made a deal with the department. He would take 9 hours of graduate courses in biology his first year and promise to maintain an overall average of B.
“Then I told them, ‘I’m married, I have two kids, and I also need a job.’ ” He was then offered a job managing laboratory classes as a teaching assistant. The only problem? He did not know anything about the material. Undeterred, he asked to teach the Thursday and Friday lab sections. This way, he could sit in on the Monday and Tuesday sections to learn what he had to teach to his students. “I self-trained and I got an A in all my classes,” Dr. Bryant says proudly.
Beginning at Texas A&M University
After obtaining his doctorate in 1969, Dr. Bryant became an assistant professor of anthropology and director of the palynology laboratory at Washington State University. In 1971, the university budget suffered drastic cuts after the local economy declined. Dr. Bryant worried he could not fund his graduate students. Then came a phone call from Dr. David Maxwell, the first dean of the College of Liberal Arts at Texas A&M University.
Dr. Maxwell had just asked a group of sociologists to lead the newly created Department of Sociology and Anthropology; the only thing that was missing was an anthropologist. A new faculty member therefore was sought to build an anthropology program with undergraduate and graduate degrees. Dr. Bryant would be this anthropologist. He saw the opportunity to build something totally new where he could have funding to support his graduate students.
A few years later, as the anthropology program was steadily growing, the United States Department of Agriculture contacted Dr. Bryant because of his expertise in pollen identification. The world market price for honey had just decreased, but the price for honey in the United States remained relatively high. Some entrepreneurs were buying honey outside the country and passing it off as local honey to make a profit. The USDA wanted to identity the culprits.
Palynology analysis can be extremely precise. Every geographic area has its own unique combination of trees and other plants, creating a sort of pollen fingerprint. By identifying the pollen in honey, Dr. Bryant could identify the flowers used by the bees and therefore know where the honey came from. The USDA could then identify imported honey being passed off as local honey.
“Did you know that bees use 9,000 native plants in Texas? And 60,000 different native plants in the United States?” asks Dr. Bryant, emphasizing the wide variety of pollen he had to learn about. “I was too proud to say I could not do it. It was hard, but I learned so much! If you do honey, you can do everything!”
And everything he did.
Bees and the CIA
For many years, Dr. Bryant tried to convince the police and various investigative authorities to use pollen in forensic analysis. By identifying the pollen on various objects (such as computers, boots, clothing, and improvised explosive devices), Dr. Bryant could say where the previous owner of the object had been. Such analysis was already used in forensic science in Australia but not in the United States.
Dr. Bryant recalls that everywhere he went, there was interest, but nothing ever happened. “I felt like Moses. I thought that if I said it enough, people would eventually listen.”
Then September 11, 2001, happened. “Everyone wanted to do pollen,” exclaims Dr. Bryant, laughing. Someone at the CIA attended one of his workshops on pollen in forensic analysis and convinced his superiors that it was worth a try for investigating terrorist cells.
Once, the CIA sent Dr. Bryant 35 samples from various objects. He was asked to determine from the pollen on them whether the owners could have been at the same place. He never learned whether his analysis contributed to any specific investigation. “I was only one piece of the puzzle,” he says.
Dr. Bryant’s work for the CIA was confidential. He could not publish anything about this research and could not talk about it. “But it kept my lab open,” says Dr. Bryant with a smile. Meanwhile, he was continuing his own research on the ancient environment and diet of our ancestors.
Carrying it forward
Dr. Bryant’s laboratory, covered in bee images and cartoons, remains buzzing with students working on pollen analysis. He notes that his work outside academia has been a good way to help fund his laboratory and pay students. “Maybe people will continue to cite me or my work, but this is not what is important. My job is to get my students successful. I want them to publish and to succeed,” he says.
A quick discussion with any of his students confirms his commitment. “He is the best. He is always there. Not only about school, but he is also helping with life decisions,” says Rossana Paredes, a recently graduated doctoral student of Dr. Bryant.
Even after nearly 50 years at Texas A&M, Dr. Bryant does not envision himself retiring. Not exactly. “Let’s be honest, I’m gonna die of cancer before I retire,” he says, looking away for a brief moment. He has an incurable type of leukemia but has survived it twice as long as the doctors predicted. “There are no statistics for people like me,” he said, laughing, during a fall 2019 department event in his honor.
Rebekah Luza, the department business administrator, has been working with Dr. Bryant for 16 years. “He works non-stop to keep the lab afloat, not only for his students but for all students, to help them to learn a new skill, to be more marketable,” she says. Both early birds, Luza and Dr. Bryant exchange emails every day as early as 4 am. In all these years, she has never seen him get angry. She says, “He strives to get the bar high, not only to show his students and other faculty members how to be a better teacher but also to be better people.”
Walking back from that speech by Dr. Bryant in 2016, I was accompanied by a fellow graduate student who would soon become one of my best friends. We were both silent, thinking about what we had just heard from Dr. Bryant. He had talked about his beginning at the Department of Anthropology 45 years ago, about his pollen and about his students. He still exchanges emails weekly with his previous students even 30 years after they graduated. But mostly, what he had really talked about was passion. That passion that made him recently promise his last graduate student, “I’ll do my very best to survive until you graduate.”
I do not remember who broke the silence first. “I think I remember why I wanted to be a scholar. I want to be passionate like him.”
Three years later, in my moments of doubt and uncertainty, I think of Dr. Bryant fighting cancer, still carrying on his passion, confessing to me that, in the end, he just wants people to remember he was a nice guy, was passionate about his job and took care of his students. Of this I have no doubt.