Master SBCC Professor Dr. Robert J. Cummings leaves packed classes to retire

Master SBCC Professor Dr. Robert J. Cummings leaves packed classes to retire

Dr. Robert J. Cummings examines kelp on May 1 in the Earth and Biological Sciences Building.;

Erick Pirayesh, Staff Writer

Leaning back in his chair and scanning the ocean view from his third floor office, Dr. Robert J. Cummings reflects on his past 40 years as a biology professor.

“I never would’ve guessed in 100 years I wanted to be a teacher,” he said.

The 67-year-old will lock the office door one final time when he retires this spring.

Growing up in Rosemeade, Calif., the University of California Santa Barbara graduate knew early on that he wanted to attend college in Santa Barbara, and not just for the education.

“The surf was just terrific up here,” he said. “I surfed every day my first two years of school.”

Having been raised to appreciate everything that the outdoors had to offer, the choice to pursue a degree in biology was a no-brainer.

“I’ve always been a biologist,” he explains. “I collected bugs and plants and all that stuff; it was natural.”

Even more natural was the transition from UCSB student to City College professor, although he admits teaching was not initially something he saw himself doing.

“I don’t think anybody sets out to be a teacher. You get into it, you do it, you enjoy it and you realize what a joy it is to teach,” says Cummings.

Lab assistant Paula Coffey spent 11 years working with Cummings and said students have been trying to pack into his classes before he leaves for good.

“Students have tremendous respect for him,” Coffey said. “He always has time for them. They just love him.”

Cummings said students who take his labs always remember the slime mold races.

He explained how every year, they grow and race multiple slime molds, an amoeba-like organism grown on a surface that can then be shaped into a racetrack.

“We give them names and bet on them,” he says.

The 26-inch marathon takes a whole weekend to finish, but the event is always a hit.

“Everybody’s standing around, and there’s nothing really happening,” he explained. “You[’ve] got to be a biology nerd to appreciate it.”

Besides teaching students the finer points of gambling, Cummings has also inspired them to follow in his footsteps.

Geordie Armstrong, City College geography instructor, sat in Cummings’ class 17 years ago.

“If science was hard, he had a way of conveying it in an understandable way,” Armstrong said. “After taking his class, I knew I really wanted to teach science, and I wanted to be like that.”

So what’s next for Cummings after spending four decades at the same institution?

“I’m going to make my wine,” he said. “I mean, I already do make wine, but much more seriously.”

Editor’s Note: This article was originally published May 9, 2012.