Today Lyon heard with a heavy heart that Emeritus Professor of Biology Mark Schram has passed away surrounded by family and friends. The article below was originally published in the Piper of Summer 2016 and is a testament to his encouraging life story and his full-hearted commitment to the Lyon community.
A College Drop Out, Technically
Dr. Mark Schram Finds Meaning in Perseverance
Born and raised in the western suburbs of Chicago, Illinois, Associate Professor of Biology Dr. Mark Schram was never your average suburbanite. He did not revel in the chaos of urban living or the cosmopolitan bustle of downtown; he reveled in the quiet outdoors, far away from inner-city soundscapes and the sprawling metropolis he called home.
While it was this love of the outdoors that would eventually lead to days spent knee-deep in streams studying zooplankton and weeks snorkeling in the Bahamas, Schram took his first steps into adulthood with a great uncertainty that would lead him down an unexpected and short-lived path.
“Technically I’m a college drop out,” said Schram. “University of Illinois, School of Engineering, 1972. Lasted six weeks.”
Uncertain of his future, Schram put his studies on hold to begin a brief career as a machinist, a full-time job until his eventual return to college in 1973. Upon his return, however, he was no more certain of what path he wished to take; he began shuffling his way through an assortment of majors, from nursing to psychology to x-ray technology, with no clear direction in sight.
It was not until he started work as a tour guide with Michigan Technological University, backpacking with youth groups in the Isle Royale, that the beginnings of his future in biology began to stir. These beginnings would continue to stir, lingering in the back of his mind, until a trip to the Shawnee National Forest in Carbondale quickly transformed his future into a reality.
“That’s where I had my solidifying experience with the outdoors,” said Schram. “Shawnee National Forest. I got a bite of that, and that was it. I never went back.”
Schram graduated from Southern Illinois University in Carbondale with a B.S. in zoology and a concentration in fisheries. From there, he made his way to the University of Arkansas at Fayetteville and earned his M.S. and Ph.D. in aquatic invertebrate biology.
“I study organisms that fall in a feeding level between algae and fish,” said Schram. “They’re basically fish food. I get to go out and play in the woods all the time, study them in lakes and reservoirs and streams and creeks. There are a lot of really interesting questions that make me happy trying to resolve. I can look at something and say, ‘Wow, how does that work?’ And then I can come up with some kind of method of testing how it works, and sometimes it works and sometimes it doesn’t work. Trial and error and research. I like that. I like what I’ve done relative to the group of organisms that I work with. I like the questions, and I like sharing that work.”
With a doctorate in his back pocket, Schram began his professional career in 1987 as a postdoctoral research associate at the University of Arkansas. He then moved to Murray State University in Kentucky in 1988 to continue his postdoctoral research in the university’s Center for Reservoir Research.
It wasn’t until 1991, after he had burned through 60 or more job applications, that Schram joined the Lyon College faculty as Assistant Professor of Biology.
“It was one of those colleges on my list,” said Schram. “Small, small town, small community. It was a kind of comfort zone that afforded me more options to teach. I knew that in a smaller college I could adapt.”
It would not take long for Lyon to learn that Schram was not a typical professor—he was a man who danced to the beat of his own drum.
“I’ll use any method that’s available to me to press a point,” said Schram. “I can go from an extremely stern, formalized lecture to kidding around to a really relaxed question-and-answer session. My approaches are different in all of my classes. Sometimes my approaches are different day-to-day. It depends on what I need to shake up the students, to wake them up. My advising is uniquely different too, but it seems to work for me. School of hard knocks is real, and it’s not necessarily a bad thing. I’m very honest with the students, whether it’s good or not so good.”
Just as important as maintaining an honest relationship with his students is gaining their trust. For Schram, the trust his students have in him is more important than any other factor of his teaching career.
“There is no other thing more important,” said Schram. “Remember that education goes both ways. I would say that in many cases, I’ve learned just as much from my students as I hope they’ve learned from me. Because everyone is different; they make up part of a family, and my family is my class.”
This trust has become abundantly clear as the years have passed, with students showering Schram with personal and professional accolades. He served as an advisor to the members of TKE for several years. In 1995, the sisters of Alpha Xi Delta named him Man of the Year; in that same year, the members of Alpha Chi named him Teacher of the Year; and in 2005 and 2009, the sisters of Phi Mu named him Professor of the Month.
“Those were so meaningful for me because they came from the students,” said Schram. “I’m very grateful. I’m very humbled. I mean, you’ve got a bunch of incredible faculty here, and I’m not anywhere near some of my colleagues. Those really mean a lot to me.”
No students are more proud of their professor than Schram’s students are of him—and arguably no professor has been more proud of his students.
“I get a smile on my face when I think of what the students have accomplished,” said Schram. “It’s incredible. You should see the track record. If you take a look at the accomplishments of all the students, it’s remarkable. And that suggests that maybe I did something right. There’s a big smile there. I mean, that’s why I’m in the business. Just for that. Because I can see what the students are doing when they leave here.”
It is not just the students who respect Schram, but faculty, staff, and the community alike. In 1998, Lyon granted him academic tenure and named him Associate Professor of Biology; in 2004, the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education named him Arkansas Professor of the Year; and in 2014, Lyon trustees, faculty, staff, and students awarded him the Williamson Prize for Teaching Excellence. He has served on and chaired numerous committees at Lyon, including the Division of Math and Science for six years and the Pre-Health Professions Advisory Committee for eight years, and he has been an active member of the community, serving as a youth basketball and soccer coach, a youth baseball assistant coach, and a science fair judge at Southside, Batesville, and Cave City schools.
Despite these accomplishments, Schram has remained humble in the face of his success, crediting many of his triumphs to timing and luck. “The timing was right,” said Schram. “I was chair of the division. I had papers being published. We were revamping the pre-med program. We had bunches of money from grants. I mean, yeah, I worked hard, but I also got lucky. I’ve worked with some incredible people. Tell you what, you’re a fool not to listen to an older, experienced person. You can learn more from them than you can from anything. I have.”
This year will mark Schram’s silver anniversary at Lyon College—25 years of a legacy that faculty, staff, and students will embrace. For Schram, it will be 25 years of a professional career enriched by his students and their successes; for him, as the old cliché goes, it really is all about the students.
“I think that’s what I reflect on the most,” said Schram. “It’s all about the successes of the students. Those who just try do just fine. They really do. Maybe they’re going to stub their toes for a year, do something stupid, but it’s remarkable when you look at those students who have graduated from Lyon and the incredible things they are doing. Our students never give up. I think we instill that in them. They analyze, change, and reapply. It’s all about them, and anybody who thinks it’s about anything other than about them needs to take a good look at themselves and say, ‘Hey, what am I doing?’ Because it’s worked for me for 25 years. I’m not saying it’s perfect. I’m not even saying it’s right. But it sure has worked for me.”
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