Micro-Explorer Passes Torch

Bill Shear Retires

By Angus Kirk McClellan '05

Bill Shear

Early in May of 1974, the flowers and bushes along High Street in Farmville were in full bloom. The quiet town looked much as it does today, although with one or two fewer stoplights. Strolling up the sidewalk from his room at the old Weyanoke Hotel was biology professor Dr. William "Bill" Shear, who was in town for an interview at Hampden-Sydney. He soon made his way from the idyllic country town over to the local College, which until then he had never seen.

He was immediately struck by the campus's rolling lawns and sprawling oak trees. "I went over there, and everything was beautiful," he said. "I got the offer, took the job, and I've been here ever since, happy as a lark. It just turned out to be a good fit."

A Harvard graduate, Shear has taught at Hampden-Sydney for forty years, retiring this past May. He taught general biology, entomology, zoology, evolutionary theory, and a host of other courses. Not only did he teach a wide variety of classes, but as time went on, he had to teach those classes in different ways.

"Biology has simply changed enormously," he said. "I would tell my students in my freshman biology class, ‘I took this class more than 50 years ago. I'm not going to teach you anything I learned back then'-because it's all new. The amount we know now is incredible. If I could show myself from the 1970s what we're doing now, it would be like what Arthur C. Clarke once wrote: ‘Any sufficiently advanced technology is indistinguishable from magic.' So many of the things we've discovered and understand now have been totally unanticipated. And yet there is so much that remains to be done."

From Forest to Faculty

Shear spent much of his childhood exploring the nearby forests in his hometown of Coudersport, Pennsylvania. The flora and fauna introduced him to the world of biology, "much of which I just picked up through osmosis," he said. But he was unsure which field he wanted to pursue in higher education.

"When I went to the College of Wooster, I shopped around for majors," he said. "Initially I thought I'd be an English major. Then it was speech and drama. But after I took my first formal course in biology, I pretty much decided that was what I wanted to do professionally. It was just extremely interesting."

After earning his master's degree at the University of New Mexico in 1965, Shear took a professorship at Concord College in West Virginia. From there he went to Harvard to earn his Ph.D., believing that his future in academics would be limited if he were to continue without his doctorate. Because he had already taught most of the courses that Harvard required, he was able to take much of his coursework by examination. So he earned his Ph.D. in just two years, spending most of his time on biological research.

He went back to Concord for a few years and worked briefly at the University of Florida until he heard about an opening at a little college in Southside Virginia. He came to Farmville, saw the campus, and over four decades taught thousands of students about their fellow living organisms.Bill Shear

In his classes and labs he was known as an almost omniscient biologist with a straightforward, easily understood approach to teaching. He could be tough but fair, was helpful outside of class, and was generally known as a pleasant, friendly professor. He also earned a reputation for his dry, "English" wit, as some have described it. His efforts did not go unrecognized, for by the time he retired, the College had conferred on him nearly every teaching and research award it offered.

As Hampden-Sydney professor Dr. Kristian Hargadon '01 put it, "He was an outstanding professor who gave some of the most enthusiastic lectures during my four years at the College. I found his "History of Earth and Life" class to be very engaging, and I always felt that I was learning from a world expert in the field. His depth of knowledge was amazing in itself, but his ability to relay that knowledge was equally great. His class was a true joy. After returning to H-SC in 2009 as a colleague of Bill's, I found myself on more than one occasion pausing outside his classroom as I walked down the hall to listen in."

"Any given day, just teaching a class, was my most rewarding memory," Shear said. "I don't think I ever had any bad days or bad semesters. It was just a uniformly good experience."

In The Field

Outside of the classroom, Shear has had a number of research specialties over the years. He said that being able to switch concentrations is one of the benefits of working at a small college, because places like Hampden-Sydney tend to focus more on teaching than on faculty research. Through his decades of investigations and discoveries in spider behavior, paleontology, and millipedes and centipedes, among other topics, Shear has become renowned among his fellow biologists and is generally regarded as a leading expert in certain fields. Indeed, if one searches for "millipedes" on encyclopedic websites, his name and works are often peppered throughout the list of references. He's discovered and named hundreds of species. Simply put, he has made major contributions to the knowledge and understanding of evolution and our living world.

In 1980, while pursuing one of his early specialties, Shear traveled to Papua New Guinea in the western Pacific to study the spiders native to the islands. "I was interested in a particular group of spiders, known as ‘Pirate Spiders,'" he said, "which are unusual in that they prey on other spiders. They do this by pretending to be prey themselves. They'll come up to the web of another spider and tweak it, vibrating it in such a way that it seems as though an insect is trapped. When the resident spider comes down to investigate, the pirate attacks."

Shear soon got involved in paleontology, studying fossils to investigate the transition of plants and animals from the aquatic environment to the terrestrial environment-a process occurring some 380 million years ago. Although scientists had speculated on the nature of this transition, there was a significant missing chapter in the understanding of living organisms' migration from sea to land. In examining aquatic and semi-aquatic plant fossils, Shear discovered microfossils of apparent arthropod body parts. With his understanding of arthropod anatomy, he was able to identify the pieces, put them together, "and in that process, we discovered fossils of some of the earliest known terrestrial animals," he said. It is now generally believed that sea-based arthropods used algae and other plants on shorelines to serve as habitats and food sources while developing adaptations to help them survive during their transitions onto land. Much of this understanding is attributed to Shear.

In the Lab

These discoveries led to more inquiries. "Because some of these fossilized animals were centipedes and millipedes, I became interested in those and started to wonder how they evolved," he said. "So I started working on them.
"A chemist I knew at VMI was looking for interesting organisms to work on that have chemical defenses, but had not been studied very much. And one of the many interesting things about millipedes is that they have these defense mechanisms," he said. "They're able to produce a variety of obnoxious chemicals to ward off enemies. So I got involved in chemical ecology." 

Shear recently had published a summary of what we know about the defenses of millipedes. His report, which is available online, details these mechanisms. Many myriapoda, or many-legged arthropods that include millipedes and centipedes, have gland openings called ozopores, which are found along the lengths of their bodies. Secretions from these glands pass through valves near the surface of the myriapoda's exoskeletons, releasing topical irritants, repellents, anti-feedants (which inhibit feeding behavior), or in some cases, hydrogen cyanide gas, which can kill other arthropods or even small vertebrates. To figure out all of this, Shear had to develop novel tools and procedures.

To examine these microscopic pores and other related mechanisms, one must first be adept at dissecting very small organisms, he said. "If you were to watch me working at the microscope, it would appear as if I'm not even moving. You also need microtools that you make yourself. So I developed a way of making very small scalpels out of chips from single-edge razor blades. I also use very, very, small insect pins, among other tools. You just develop different precise techniques over time."

In Retirement

Although he claims that he and his wife Noelle will "take it easy" for the first year of his retirement, Shear appears to be active as ever in his continuing research. His home, appropriately surrounded by a mass of exotic plants, bushes, and trees, houses a bedroom converted into a private biology lab. He's currently working with other professors at Auburn and Virginia Tech on a grant from the National Science Foundation.

Bill Shear"Our goal is to work out a phylogenetic tree for the entire group of millipedes," he said. "It's a tree-like or genealogical diagram that shows how they're all related in evolutionary terms. And we're using some exciting new techniques that involve looking directly at the DNA. We collect the animals, extract and sequence the DNA, and then use computer programs to align the sequences to show how they're similar or different. It's something I never would have anticipated 50 years ago."

The couple also plans to continue their involvement with FACES Food Pantry, which provides emergency and supplementary food to qualified residents in the Farmville area. Shear is also involved with the local Virginia Legal Aid Society (VLAS), which provides legal funding and representation to those in need. He and Noelle are currently leading a capital campaign to raise $100,000 for a new building for VLAS. He'll likely continue his cultivation of different irises as well, offering them to Hampden-Sydney faculty and staff who wish to populate their gardens with his specially bred varieties.

Both Shear and Noelle have connections in Ireland as well, so they also hope to travel across the Atlantic to spend time with friends. "We really love it there," he said, "It's just beautiful, and you meet so many wonderful people." He's already seen a play by one of his favorite poets, William Butler Yeats, at the famous Abbey Theatre in Dublin, and he hopes to take a summer course on the legendary Irish poet in the town of Sligo sometime in the future.
Even though Shear will be enjoying his newfound opportunities, his time away from Hampden-Sydney will come with at least some costs. As he put it, "You know, even though I waited longer than most to retire-it was still kind of hard to pull away."