From a boy peering into a garden pond in Ireland to a biology professor wading in the rivers of Vermont, Declan McCabe has always looked deep for answers.


By: Mark Tarnacki

Holding a magnifying glass, the youngest son of Martin and Edna McCabe's six children spent hours staring at the frogs and worms in the garden pond. Living in the semi-rural outskirts of Athlone in central Ireland, Declan McCabe would ask "Who made the trees? Why is the grass green?" Taught to fish by his father, who loved the nearby river, he would spend all day catching fish and then returning them to water.

Fast-forward four decades and as an adult, Declan McCabe, gently humorous and bespectacled with a wide grin and an Irish brogue, remains on happy terms with nature and inquisitiveness. As a professor of biology, McCabe is known by his Saint Michael's colleagues and students for his mild demeanor and easy way with a laugh, as well as his exuberant insistence on bringing biology students directly to the woods and waterways. "You've got to make a mess to teach science sometimes," he says.

To understand how the hyper-curious Irish boy found his way to a PhD and a small liberal arts college in Vermont, it helps to know something about orienteering, a popular hobby in Europe. First as a Boy Scout (his father was his troop leader) and later in Ireland's equivalent of the National Guard, McCabe became accomplished at orienteering, a challenging activity that demands alert perception, common sense and good use of basic resources like a map and compass to navigate from point to point in diverse and usually unfamiliar terrain. The goal is to arrive most efficiently at one's desired endpoint. McCabe got so good at it that his military unit sent him all around Ireland to represent them in competitions.

"My father's theory was, there was something for every kid, whatever they were destined for, and he was open to letting you try whatever you wanted to try," McCabe says. "He'd say, 'You've gotta do what makes you happy..."

The best orienteers know that the best route from Point A to Point B isn't always a straight line. So it has been in the life and career of Declan McCabe, moving through a series of intermediate landmarks before improvising opportune routes toward his ultimate life goal: getting paid to study nature and be outdoors while passing on his passion to others.

His youthful years of earnest nature-discovery in Ireland's wilds and waters landed McCabe a summer job in the U.S. at age 19 as a nature expert at Camp Neumann, a youth camp run by the Philadelphia Archdiocese. He'd seen a flyer advertising the opportunity on a cafeteria floor at the technical college in Athlone where he was studying biology. The first person he met at Camp Neumann was Margaret Vizzard, an American and fellow camp counselor. "I remember she was wearing a t-shirt with a cell membrane and nucleus on it. I saw that shirt and thought, 'All right, I think I can talk to her!'" he says.

Back in Ireland after the first summer, he spent many evenings feeding huge stacks of coins into public pay phones to talk briefly with Margaret, a biology student at Temple University. Once he determined she'd be back for another camp summer, McCabe had all the incentive he needed to return for the next year.

After his second summer, connections from Camp Neumann allowed McCabe to obtain sponsorship for a student visa so he could enroll at Philadelphia's St. Joseph University to study biology. Not long after his 1990 graduation from St. Joseph's, he married Vizzard and made the United States his permanent home, far away from his "small Irish family," as he jokingly describes them.

McCabe's academic specialty is ecology, which he pursued in master's studies at University of Pittsburgh while Vizzard was doing post-doctoral studies in neurological science, her specialty. All through undergrad and grad school, McCabe says, he got by on a shoe-string budget with the help of teaching assistantships or odd jobs. In his undergrad days in Philadelphia, McCabe took night classes because they were considerably cheaper. He offset expenses further by working day jobs that included lab technician, house-painter, deli-meat slicer and plumber's assistant, a job he found through a remarkable Irish connection: "I was serving food at the summer camp, and a visiting lady in my line told me I talked exactly like a friend of hers, so to humor her I asked his name, and it turns out it was a guy from Athlone. I'd been his kids' Cub Scout leader!" he recalls. McCabe decided to surprise the man, a plumber named Sweeney, that very evening with a drop-by visit. One of the boys answered the door, and called out, "Mommy, there's a man at the door who looks just like Declan McCabe!"

Now with his own three kids at ages that keep them on the go (Heather 15, Ethan, 12 and Lauren, 7) he tries to model his father's examples in the time he spends with them.

His dad, an enthusiastic scouting leader, was also a boxing trainer, and a career non-commissioned company sergeant in the Irish Army. Martin saw the sport as an excellent way to keep boys out of trouble, so he helped run the local boxing club in a parish hall. When young Declan became keen to try it out however, Martin knew what had to be done, "otherwise he knew he'd never hear the end of it," Declan recalls. Martin asked one of his gym's regulars with some boxing skills to get in the ring with his son and "let him know what it feels like to get hit, but don't hurt him," as Declan remembers it. The experience had its intended effect.

Instead, his dad steered his youngest boy toward the more peaceful activities that he knew better suited him. "His theory was, there was something for every kid, whatever they were destined for, and he was open to letting you try whatever you wanted to try," McCabe says. "He'd say, 'You've gotta do what makes you happy,' because he'd been dumped into the butcher trade as a young man and got out of it as fast as he could. Then he worked for the postal service and stayed in the Army after 'The Emergency,' as Irish call World War II."

Declan's childhood allergies kept him out of the 100- bird aviary his father built at their home. The notion to build an aviary was not as unusual in Ireland as it might seem in the U.S., McCabe says. "You know how you have dog shows in the U.S.? In Ireland they have bird shows," he explains, remembering trips south to Cork or across on a ferry to England for bird shows with the family, or buying bird shampoo, or "lamping" eggs to see the heartbeat of developing chicks, all good background for later lab activities or genetics studies. To keep Declan occupied, Martin built the pond at the bottom of the family garden, and Declan began his exploration of water creatures instead.

His family's modest post-war row-house in Athlone was urban in style and packed in among many others, but located in the outskirts, which had a mostly rural feel, with fields and woods extending far out back. They heated the home with peat cut from a bog, fed coins into an electric meter to keep the power on and ate potatoes with every meal. "We didn't have a car till I was maybe 14 but that wasn't unusual because nobody else on the street had one either," says McCabe. "I never had the remotest sense of any hardship." His days were spent finding bugs in ponds and bogs, sneaking out to sit in trees with friends to watch nocturnal creatures and camping and fishing.

Declan fondly remembers a beautiful wooden rowboat that his father built with help from a nearby technical school, making those long days fishing more interesting and far-flung. Today, he says, one of his dreams for biology instruction at Saint Michael's would be to have a research boat for the college so that professors could take students out on Lake Champlain.

In recent years, one of McCabe's signature activities is his leading role in the Vermont EpScor Streams Project, which brings students from U.S. colleges and high schools and from Puerto Rico to Vermont for the summer to do biology research and lab testing in streams, based at Saint Michael's. "A lot of northern states have failed in the mission to increase diversity in science," he says, "and Epscor was having the same problem. But then when we formed relationships with Puerto Rico, it turns out they have the same problem. Puerto Rico is full of Puerto Ricans, sort of like Ireland is full of Irish! But now we sent occasional students down there, and they sent a lot up here and in that way each of us has increased diversity in our own area. It's a beautiful thing."

He enjoys showing off an ever-growing collection of animal skulls that he uses for his course on evolution, everything from small mammals to bears and alligators. He's also a big proponent of parents buying good microscopes for their young kids and just letting them look at things found in surrounding nature. He enjoys teaching biology to education majors. "We'd go to local schools, students would create a set of six science-based activities based on what teachers wanted and kids would rotate through the stations," he explains.

Other favorite activities include field trips to the Champlain islands to find Ordovician fossils, or having students gather wildlife footprints using little trays of black chalk. "You put in a dog biscuit so your raccoon, fisher, or mink will come in, and you have forensic quality footprints."

Professor of biology Donna Bozzone, McCabe's colleague, was delighted to hire McCabe in 2001, "I know the things that promise success are that you're both smart and really, really nice, and that's Declan. He really is so student-centered, and it's a real way of caring in that he just loves them, but he holds them to high standards. He sees them as people and isn't judgmental. He's very much someone who understands that the way we measure how well we do is how much we've helped an individual student." Bozzone finds McCabe as a colleague to be "proactive about finding ways to help people out. He's kind of old-school about that, and really does more than his share. And he does it cheerfully. He'll always be saying, 'Oh, it's all good!' even if something goes wrong occasionally. It's really quite a tonic to see somebody who can do that so skillfully and authentically."

McCabe knows that there's only so many ways to keep students' attention, citing studies that show the average adult attention span is approximately 10 minutes. So, he breaks up his science lectures with strategic personal digressions so students will stay engaged. "In my St. Mike's classes, students know me for my 'unsolicited McCabe advice for life,'" he says. "I tell them, 'This isn't a dress rehearsal. You have to make the most of opportunities when then come along.'"

Learn What Matters