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Jay Hodgson ’99 had dreams of becoming a historian but couldn’t resist the pull to biology, thus following in his parents’ footsteps. But that doesn’t mean he left his passion for history behind him.

Paleolimnologist Layers Passions

Professionally speaking, Jay Hodgson ’99 is a professor of biology at the Georgia Southern University Armstrong campus in Savannah, Georgia. One could argue, however, that he is also part historian, part detective.

“It’s like tree rings,” explains Hodgson about layers of sediment at the bottom of lakes. In one of his main areas of research, he examines those layers to “go back in time” and solve mysteries about environmental change. “Based on the width of tree ring, you can tell if it was a warm year or dry year, etc.,” Hodgson explains. “Lake sediments are similar. Each layer is a clue. If you take a cross-section, you can see how the climate around the lake has changed over time.”

This field of study, called paleolimnology, caught his attention during his doctoral studies at the University of Alabama. “I’ve always had a passion for history. This was a way for me to blend history and biology together.” He says this research is especially relevant now, since comparing lake sediments from thousands of years ago with recent sediments can show the rapid acceleration of climate change.

Hodgson’s passion for science has proven a powerful source of inspiration for his students. Last spring, after Armstrong University merged with Georgia Southern University, the alumni association honored him as one of the most inspiring and supportive faculty/staff members of the Armstrong State University era.

“It was very humbling; it was very flattering,” says Hodgson. “As an instructor, we want to reach students and make a difference in their lives. That’s why we do it. To know that you’ve reached someone, and it was so impactful that they nominated you for an award – it was very emotional.”

Hodgson took a winding path to his career as a biology professor. He began college as a history major at Valparaiso University in Indiana, determined to pursue a different path from all the scientists in his family, including his parents, Jim (Biology, Emeritus) and Carol Hodgson, long-time members of the biology department at St. Norbert. During the summers, however, Jay continued some of the lake research he’d done since childhood with his father.* After a rewarding day of research, Hodgson had a dinner table epiphany and realized he was “missing out on something important.” He decided to stop fighting his pull toward biology, and transferred to SNC.

“I remember fall of 1996, my first semester at SNC, as one of the best times of my life,” says Hodgson. “It was an eye-opening experience. I loved it.” He particularly loved doing research with his father, and with SNC professors Philip Cochran (Biology) and Nelson Ham (Geology). “I was connected immediately with research,” he says. “I loved the classes, the instructors, the teaching style … and that got everything in motion.” Today, Hodgson says the way he learned at SNC has a deep influence on the way he teaches his students: “There’s always an evolution of teaching techniques, but I hold onto a lot of the core values I learned at SNC.”

Advice for aspiring scientists
Hodgson says, “Students sometimes tell me, ‘Science is too hard, I can’t do it.’ I reassure them it’s not harder than any other field, it’s just different concepts and vocabulary. My biggest advice is to believe in yourself. Don’t let anyone tell you you’re not good enough, you’re not smart enough or you can’t do it. We need diversity in the sciences. I want students to feel empowered. Talk to your science teachers. Ask for an individual project you can take home and explore. If you want to do it, you can do it.” 

Hodgson will never know exactly how his life would look if he had stuck with his original path, but he is grateful he followed the fork in the road when it called him. “I wouldn’t be where I am today without St. Norbert College,” says Hodgson. “That is not an exaggeration. That is a cold, hard fact.”

*An article about the body of knowledge on the biology of Paul Lake, Wisconsin, to which the Hodgson family has made significant contributions over many years, was included in the February 2010 issue of @St. Norbert. The article, "Cumulative Research Helps Build Family of Scholarship," is archived in the St. Norbert College Digital Commons from where it can also be downloaded. It includes a photo of Jay Hodgson when he was a much younger scientist! 

Feb. 5, 2019