Diving into Learning
Growing up in Northern California, John D. Bell (BS ’82) was taught by his father at age 14 how to scuba dive. He never imagined he would someday be living in Hawaii, near some of the world’s best diving.
BYU-Hawaii is a perfect fit for Bell, who has been the Vice President of Academics there since 2015. An avid scuba diver, sea shell collector, and one-time curator of mollusks at the Bean Museum, Bell has loved everything about living in such a welcoming place. He and his wife quickly adjusted to the custom of saying “Aloha!” to everyone they met. But before embracing the aloha spirit, Bell already had a reputation as a kind and accessible mentor to the students and faculty he has supervised during his career. Starting in the BYU zoology department in 1990, then becoming the Dean of the College of Life Sciences and eventually the dean of Undergraduate Education, Bell has helped countless students and faculty to achieve their fullest potential.
Although he may not have pictured himself in Hawaii, Bell certainly pictured himself in academics: “For Christmas in 1968, Santa brought a chemistry set,” he remembers. Bell spent his childhood fantasizing about science, and has never stopped. After getting a degree in Zoology from BYU, Bell went on to earn a PhD from the University of California San Diego, do research in the department of pharmacology at University of Virginia, and then return to BYU as faculty in 1990. Now, as an administrator, Bell spends the majority of his time mentoring students and faculty, but he continues to researches plasma membranes and is well-published on that and other topics. His real passion, though, is helping students to have a more effective learning experience, especially through active classroom learning and creative testing. He says, “You can go into a classroom and you can just talk. Anybody can do that. You can get really good at that, but the challenge is creating experiences that the students have that lead to high-quality learning and lasting learning.”
How does he foster that high-quality, lasting learning? Bell says, “There are no boundaries. The church me, the work me, the teacher me, administrator . . . They're not separate roles. They're not things that you change as though you were changing your clothes. It's all one.” By keeping a holistic perspective, Bell is able to see the divine in his academic studies and in the people he works with. This perspective gives him insights that make all the difference. For instance, about working with students that have questions about how their studies and their faith fit together, he says, “You share your own experiences and you talk with them about their experiences and help reassure them of the things that they feel. That it's okay not knowing, having a set answer to everything. That it's okay to have some unanswered questions left in your life, and that's what educated people do. They learn how to be comfortable with that uncertainty. That’s the basis of research.”
When students learn that “service in the Kingdom and service in the classroom and service [in] the workplace—all of those things are really the same thing,” that is the highlight for Bell. Well, that and scuba diving.