Learn while teaching: James Lucas wins Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence

James Lucas has won the 2021 Dean’s Award for Teaching Excellence.

Purple pitcher plant (Sarracenia purpurea) - 2015
Thirteen uncut sheets of Elefantenhaut paper

Lucas is a 5th year PhD candidate advised by Robbie Hart, Director of the William L. Brown Center, and William L. Brown Curator & Associate Scientist at Missouri Botanical Garden. Lucas grew up in Las Vegas, Nevada, got a double BS degree in Biology and Environmental Science at Colby College in Maine, and spent time studying plants in various capacities in New England, Madagascar, Nepal, Saipan, and Vietnam. Much of his interest in nature is motivated by an interest in origami, which he’s been practicing for over 20 years.


In his nomination letter, Teaching Professor Stan Braude writes: “James brings his artistic training to the course. Last year we attracted the attention of many in the biology department when James taught our students to create high-quality pen and ink drawings for their final semester projects, which were professional and accurate. Many were published for distribution across Missouri. I have confidence that James will create numerous courses with similar creative depth for the rest of his career.  He is uniquely capable of this because he is a well-trained scientist, a well-read scholar, and a deeply talented artist.”

Jacana - 2018; One uncut
square of Origamido paper

Lucas signed up as an MTE (Mentored Teaching Experience) for Braude’s Missouri's Natural Heritage course to satisfy a requirement, but quickly discovered that he enjoys teaching so much that he’s seriously considering becoming a biology professor at a liberal arts college post-graduation. 

“My philosophy on pedagogy is one I learned from Stan: to learn while teaching. This manifests first by fostering inclusivity. Recognizing and accepting diversity in identity and experience facilitates diverse ways of reciprocal learning and teaching between instructors and students alike. Reciprocal learning and teaching is dynamic and works better with activities, demos, and workshops. Whether navigating using a map and compass in the Missouri's Natural Heritage course or dissecting berries and nuts from the grocery store to learn fruit anatomy and development in the Woody Plants of Missouri course, students gain a new perspective on nature, Missouri, and the world,” Lucas says.

Bactrian camel - 2015; One uncut
hexagon of Nepalese lokta paper
Sassafras (Sassafras albidum) leaf - 2020
One uncut square of Grainy paper

Outside of teaching, Lucas’s research is in the field of ethnobotany, the study of relationships between humans and plants. Historically, most ethnobotanists focused on the chemical roles plants play as medicines in different cultures. Lucas’s study system (fiber plants) allows him to instead evaluate their physical and structural utilities as paper, which also connects to his artistic side through origami.

In his dissertation work, he integrates functional trait measurements, semi-structured interviews, and centuries-old artisanal papermaking techniques to not only document which plant species are used in hand papermaking traditions around the world but also to explain why these species are used. With many hand papermaking traditions threatened by industry, globalization, and climate change, he uses maximum entropy species distribution modeling to guide the conservation of hand papermaking traditions and the plants on which they depend, using Nepal as a study system.

Sassafras (Sassafras albidum)
leaf - 2020; One uncut square
of Grainy paper (origami in
lower left; real thing in upper right)

Learn more about James Lucas’s work on his personal website and on his origami Instagram or his botany Instagram.

Learn more about origami and ethnobotany: 2019 - Origami exhibition at Missouri Botanical Garden; 2020 - Ethnobotany of Origami talk, Conference for [Origami] Creators, Zaragoza, Spain