Biology major Tyler Bleeker works with professor Dave Warners in a rain garden near DeVries Hall.

Somewhat shy and unassuming.

Those are the words biology professor Dave Warners chose to describe Tyler Bleeker, a 20-year old biology major from Zeeland, Mich., who just finished his second year at Calvin.

“He’s approachable, not an intimidating person at all. And this demeanor seems to work real well in terms of motivating his classmates,” said Warners.

A valuable phone call

A recent phone call Bleeker received might also serve as motivation to his biology peers. A representative from the Environmental Protection Agency (EPA) called to let Bleeker know that he was awarded a prestigious Greater Research Opportunities (GRO) Fellowship.

“I was skeptical at first,” admitted Bleeker, “it seemed like too much.”

“I think I was more excited than he was, or maybe he covers it up better,” said Warners.

Bleeker is one of just 40 students nationwide to receive the fellowship, which provides financial support for his junior and senior years of undergraduate study at Calvin and for a paid summer internship at an EPA facility during the 2012 summer. The total amount of the award? $48,900.

“My undergraduate education is paid for now. It’s taken a while for me to realize what it meant,” said Bleeker.

A new passion

What’s maybe more surprising to Bleeker is how he ended up here. He came to Calvin hoping to pursue a career in engineering. He soon realized it wasn’t his true passion, and it didn’t take him long to head in a new direction.

Last summer, he worked on a research project on campus. Warners stationed Bleeker in the tree nursery. He told Bleeker to come up with an experiment that would work toward the goal of increasing the amount of native trees planted in the Grand Rapids area.

“I had very little idea what I was doing,” said Bleeker at the start of the summer.

But, before long he got the hang of it and chose a project. He setup a study to determine how well native trees grow when planted in pots versus being planted straight in the ground, as potted trees are much easier to dig up and transplant.

Bleeker became entrenched in the project. Warners would go to the greenhouse where Bleeker was stationed at 7 a.m. some mornings and Tyler was already there. Biology professor Randy Van Dragt once asked Warners: “Does Tyler sleep at the greenhouse because it doesn’t matter how early I come in, he’s already there?”

A new lifestyle

Bleeker’s vocation had changed and so had his lifestyle. He began volunteering at the greenhouse, working with the Plaster Creek Stewards program, getting involved with biology club and living with the intentional creation care community in van Reken Hall.

His daily interaction with students interested in creation care for both biological and political reasons was a good experience: “We each have different focuses and we share our experiences, so that makes the community more comprehensive.”

A lot of experience

In Bleeker’s next two years at Calvin, he will have the opportunity for two more summers of research. In 2012, he’ll be doing the EPA research.

This summer, thanks to a Research Experience for Undergraduates grant from the National Science Foundation, Bleeker will be researching for 10 weeks at Fordham University’s biological field station in a suburb of New York City. He’ll be working with a graduate student studying the growth traits of a field mustard plant, native to southern California, during the course of a growing season. Bleeker will be studying this specific plant to help determine how the characteristics of a plant may make it more adaptable to invading a new habitat.

A life of restoration

Bleeker said that the more he learns about the environment, the greater responsibility he feels he has to it. And he plans to continue that learning in graduate school.

“I’m hoping to prepare for restoration ecology in urban areas where ecosystems are compromised a lot and looking to restore those [areas] to greater ecological integrity,” said Bleeker.

“It helps me to be more hopeful for the future to see students who are motivated by things that ought to motivate us,” said Warners.

“People show that they care about humanity through a lot of different ways, and, for me, it’s through taking care of the environment,” concluded Bleeker.

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