In knee-high Wellington boots, a raincoat, and a worn, gray newsboy hat, Jack Webster navigated through a stream with his field and lab ecology class, nimbly leading his students. Some carried nets, others held measuring sticks or chemistry sets. Addressing each student by name, Webster asked questions about the field experiment. Quietly observing them, he acted as a knowledgeable resource.
In his nearly 37 years at Virginia Tech, the professor of biological sciences has built a distinguished career, and his exceptional devotion earned him the university's 2012 William E. Wine Award honoring excellence in teaching.
Jennifer Tank (M.S. biological sciences '92, Ph.D.'96), now a stream ecology and biogeochemistry professor at the University of Notre Dame and one of Webster's former graduate students, said Webster's passion was evident in his teaching.
"He ran a world-class research program and led grad students and their research, but he always made time to go into the field, both for teaching and mentoring his grad students," said Tank. "Usually the first thing you sacrifice is time in the field, but he never did that, and it's amazing to me [because of] how much commitment that takes. And it's because of his passion for the subject that he prioritizes that."
Webster grew up doing hands-on research with his father, who was a biology professor. Today, this style of learning sets Webster apart. In most of his classes, he takes his students into the field on a nearly weekly basis.
Beth Cheever (Ph.D. biological sciences '12), a postdoctoral researcher in the biology department at Trent University in Ontario, Canada, and one of Webster's former Ph.D. students, recalls Webster's field trips. "He was always really excited to be in the field and show science from a hands-on perspective," Cheever said. "You can tell he really enjoys being outside and sharing his research interests with his students."
Over the years, teaching helped Webster to evolve as a researcher. "What you teach influences what you get interested in researching and vice versa; they feed each other," he said. He expanded his interests from ecosystem modeling—using abstract representations to examine the interactions of living organisms with their environment—to also include stream ecology, which explores the ecosystem interactions within a stream. His current research projects include organic matter dynamics in streams, the impact of nitrogen and phosphorus in streams, stream ecosystem responses to disturbances, and river-floodplain interaction.
Webster said the greatest change in his career has been becoming more comfortable both with the material he teaches and with how to communicate with students.
"I think the most important thing to being a good teacher is you have to know what you're talking about," he said. "Students have to recognize that you're an authority and you're not just reading it out of a book. Trying to communicate that takes a lot of practice, a lot of learning from other people. I co-taught courses with some really good teachers over the years, and I learned a lot from them."
Webster said he has learned what to realistically expect from his students as well as how to inspire their best work. Students appreciate the high expectations he sets for them, he said, and they succeed because they feel like they're being pushed.
In 1978, a teaching collaboration between Webster and Fred Benfield, professor and associate head of the Department of Biological Sciences, led to the creation of the Stream Team. What started out as two professors joining graduate research labs with common interests evolved into a more official group that includes five faculty members and about 11 graduate students per year. The ecosystem research team travels to sites around the region, conducting studies, applying for grants, and writing articles.
Brenda Winkel, professor and biological sciences department head, recognizes Webster's worth in both researching and teaching. "He is always doing more than is absolutely required of him. I think it's because he loves to teach and loves to interact with students in a classroom setting," she said. "I can't think of a time when water wasn't important [to the world, and] that's what makes [his work] effective. He can relate the subject in incredible ways to what's going on in the world and he gets people out in the field."
Outside of academics, Webster is an avid runner who often can be spotted on the Drillfield. Although he doesn't compete in as many races as he once did, he still makes time for one each year. He also plays guitar and sings in a folk band called "Simple Gifts of the Blue Ridge." The band has recorded four albums.
As the field and lab ecology students trekked back through the stream, laughing about the salamander they found, Webster walked quietly behind them, navigating through the rocks and thorns, obviously more comfortable here than he was in his office detailing his career accomplishments. In the van on the return trip to campus, Webster stopped to point out sinkholes and coal deposits—proving that his range of knowledge and desire to teach are never-ending.