"I have two prepared answers when someone asks me about my research," says Baylor economist Beck Taylor. "I give the short answer first, and if the person's eyes glaze over, I know I've made the right choice."
University researchers invest their time and knowledge in subjects that may seem esoteric to the casual observer attempting small talk at a dinner party. But for Taylor and most of the professors with whom I visit, all it takes to make the low flame of their intellectual passion arc is a second question: How does your research make a difference in someone's life?
Taylor studies how poverty and other family contexts impact the cognitive and social development of children from birth to age 5. Last semester, he presented his findings upon returning from a one-year sabbatical at Harvard. He foresees his research helping to inform policy-makers about the relative benefits of federal and state tax policies and interventions such as the Earned Income Tax Credit and Early Head Start.
In "Making a world of difference," beginning on page 24, Baylor Magazine looks at the research of seven professors as a sampling across disciplines. Each is involved in adding to the knowledge bank in ways that have direct application to our lives: the quality of water we drink, the mental health of our teenagers, access to health care for our grandparents living in rural areas, how we interpret presidential rhetoric, whether there are contaminants in our water sources, even glimpses into the secrets of our universe.
This is the world of the scholar-teacher -- instruction and application enlivened by discovery -- that "Aha!" moment when random patterns suddenly emerge with startling clarity as a dazzling, previously unimagined whole. Encourage any professor to give his or her second answer -- the long version -- and watch the eyes light up, the body lean forward, hear the speech accelerate: See? Do you see? Instantly, they are compelled to share their knowledge, their excitement.
This dedication to opening new worlds for others brings to mind another teacher -- Anne Sullivan. In a scene from "The Miracle Worker," a movie about Helen Keller's life, Sullivan is rapidly moving her fingers in Helen's cupped hand to form the symbols for the word "water," and then holding that same hand under the pump. When Helen realizes the connection, her life is transformed. That moment of understanding gave her access to a world that previously had not existed for her. Nothing ever would be the same again. Keller wrote later in life: "One can never consent to creep when one feels an impulse to soar."
That impulse abounds at Baylor. Just ask around.