Spike Lee turns to biology professor's research
-- by Mary Isca Pirkola
As a Grand Valley professor of biology, Carl Bajema loves being a detective, asking questions and testing hypotheses. But, a funny thing happened on the way to gather information about Michigan's environmental past.
While Bajema was conducting research at the library, a friend showed up, looking for newspaper clips about local African American history for a genealogy project. Bajema offered to do it for him. That side project soon took on a life of its own. It grew to more than 2,000 pages and has become one of the best collections of African American history in the country. Many other researchers have made use of the material, including a consultant for Spike Lee's movie Malcolm X.
|Bajema has spent more than 15 years viewing the Grand Rapids Public Library's microfilm collection of Michigan newspapers published from 1830-1931.|
What started as a mission to research environmental history quickly expanded to include more dates and more topics. In fact, he has also collected tens of thousands of news accounts of labor unions, militia and war veterans, educators, police and firefighters, women's suffrage and other gender issues.
"It takes approximately 70 binders to hold the tens of thousands of photocopies of news accounts I've collected on these varied topics," Bajema said. "Though these collections are still growing, they can be studied by anyone who goes to the Grand Rapids History Center at the Grand Rapids Public Library."
Bajema's interest in the environmental effects of early industry led him to extensive research about hunting, fishing, water pollution and public health. That led to research into Michigan's logging history, with particular attention to the Grand River Valley and the Upper Peninsula. That, in turn, led to another project researching Michigan logging railroads. As is so often the case for Bajema, one thing led to another, and another, and another.
"Too many academics spend virtually all their time in the ivory tower," Bajema said. "I started this research because I wanted to do field work."
Bajema, quite literally, immerses himself in research. Last spring was his third time wading through the cedar swamp at the headwaters of the Two Hearted River near Grand Marais in the Upper Peninsula. It's where an old logging railroad that was built on the iced-over swamp sank. He brought a film crew to gather underwater images. He also wanted to map, using Global Positioning Satellite technology, two sunken railroad bridges. It is part of a larger project mapping Michigan forest history sites with GPS coordinates.
"It was probably the worst swamp I have ever hiked through," Bajema said. "We crawled over, under and around hundreds of fallen cedars while trying to track the railroad ties buried in the organic ooze. At least I know when to schedule field trips to avoid the biting black flies and mosquitoes: early spring, after the ice melts, but before the eggs hatch."
During his 41 years at Grand Valley, Bajema has not only seen many changes but, as one known to question authority, was a driving force behind some of them. He also credits two biology professors, the late Howard Stein and retired Fred Bevis, as partners in the push to modernize curriculum.
"The early Grand Valley curriculum was too focused on the past," he said. "As much as I enjoy history, science is primarily about the present and the future. We're trying to solve problems. We questioned a lot of things. We got the Math Department to teach its first statistics course. We did it by telling them if they didn't teach it, we would."
In 1995 he wrote the State of Michigan Science Education Evolution Standard for K-12 curriculum, amidst the debate of evolution versus creationism. Bajema believes it is imperative to teach students to be critical thinkers, to test hypotheses and apply knowledge.
In the early days of Grand Valley, Bajema created a few waves with his field trips. He and Bevis once took about 90 students to the Smoky Mountains to study vegetation and wildlife. The problem was it nearly emptied some classrooms on a campus of only 1,000 students.
"It was easy to get to know students then," Bajema said. "We had some great experiences together and created a bond. I still get e-mail from some of my earliest students who went on field trips with me to Florida, the U.P. and the Smokies."
High standards seem to run in the family. Claudia Bajema, director of Grand Valley's MBA program, is his wife. Three of their children are Grand Valley graduates: Kimberly in 1992, Rebecca in 2001 and Brandon in 2003.
Bajema has recently co-authored a paper submitted for the Journal of Macro Marketing about technological innovations in Grand Rapids in the 1920s. With anthropology professor Janet Brashler, Bajema published a paper on Blendon Landing, the sawmill and shipyard ghost town adjacent to the Grand River on the Allendale Campus. Bajema said he hopes to live long enough to edit a two-volume atlas of more than 500 logging railroads that operated in Michigan from 1850-1964.
Bajema's personal interest is in science education in general and evolutionary theory of natural and sexual selection in particular. He pioneered the use of life history analyses to measure natural selection and has edited or co-authored five books on that topic alone.
Whether wading through the hundreds of research notebooks, mountains of newspaper clippings, or miles of cedar swamp, Bajema is not content to stick to one subject. Yet, his thoroughness and depth of detail make each project time intensive. He hopes to spend more time on scholarship once he retires from teaching. The hardest decision may be picking which project to work on first.
Bajema's online indexes to two topics, African Americans and women, can be found at
Page last modified July 20, 2011