To Simply Do
“There was a 1957,” he chuckles, as I ask him when he was born. Dr. Carlos Alvarez has travelled far in the time between his birth in Lima, Perú and now.
Dr. Alvarez is a biology and chemistry professor at Pensacola Christian College in Pensacola, Florida. He spent his childhood in northern Perú, near the Ecuador border, where his father worked for the customs office. His family then moved back to the Lima area, where he lived through high school, college, and his first round of graduate school. With this background, he knows what it takes to make the journey from life in South America to life in the United States. I asked him how his family felt about his living in the States.
“It’s a pride thing for them,” he said. Having a son who’s “made it” in the States has fulfilled and exceeded his parent’s goals and expectations for him. He’s worked hard to get to where he is, and has consistently held himself to a standard of excellence far above what was merely necessary.
Alvarez’s high school education, and what he made of it, went a long way towards opening the doors for his higher education. He went to San Andreas’ School, a Scottish Presbyterian mission school outside of Lima, where he received formal training in English. His senior year, he took a placement test to ascertain which upper-level English class he would take: A, B, or C.
He tested into the A class. However, there was one class higher than A: the notoriously-difficult “Cambridge” literature class. It was already filled, so he remained in the A class. Soon finding it too easy, he asked the headmaster if he could transfer into the “Cambridge” class. It turned out that one place had been vacated, so Alvarez was able to take a now-empty seat in the far back of the room; and for his last year of formal English instruction, he studied Beowulf, Chaucer, and Milton — entirely in English.
Another influence which drew him to pursue his current educational accomplishments was his cousin, Ulises Moreno. In 1973, when Alvarez was a sophomore in high school, Moreno graduated from Cornell University with a Ph.D. in Plant Physiology. Meaning to employ his expertise to the benefit of his own country, he returned to Perú to study potato physiology. Alvarez visited the Andes with his cousin for a week-long trip to his cousin’s potato fields. “That’s how my long-life affair with potatoes was started,” he grins.
His cousin became a professor at the National Agricultural University at La Molina, on the outskirts of Lima. Alvarez, intending to study agriculture (and potatoes in particular) under his cousin, prepared extensively for the entrance exam. Out of the two hundred students actually admitted to his program, and the two thousand admitted to the school that year, he scored the highest. He finished in four years with his B.S. in Agricultural Engineering, took a professorship at the university that year, 1980, and two years later began working towards his master’s in the same field. He taught and studied at the university for the next seven years, earning his M.S. in 1989.
His time teaching and studying wasn’t so mundane as it could have been, though. He worked independently as an agricultural and agrochemical consultant, which provided some welcome additional funds; and he continued making visits to the Andes with his cousin and a researcher from the United States, Dr. Clanton Black.
The Andean roads, sometimes little more than burro-paths, were treacherous driving at best, with no guardrails to prevent a vehicle from slipping off into an abyss with one slight misturn. One of these roads was so narrow that the lefthand tires were only inches from a sheer drop. Alvarez’s door (a lefthand door) was slightly ajar, which understandably made him nervous. However, when he opened it a bit to shut it more firmly, the car took a lurch which swung him, clutching door handle and open window, over a several-thousand-foot drop. Luckily for him, the air conditioning had been non-operational. “If I hadn’t had the window down, I would have been dead,” he said wryly.
In 1983, when Dr. Black began visiting the Agricultural University from the United States to study potato physiology — which does seem to be the primary botanical interest in Perú — Alvarez got to work with him. As the only student in the lab who spoke fluent English (thanks to his “Cambridge” class), he became Black’s de facto chauffeur, tour guide, and field assistant. Over the next three years, while Black worked on his project and occasionally took two-week excursions back to Perú, he and Alvarez developed a friendship which led to an invitation in 1986 for Alvarez to serve a yearlong stint in Black’s lab at the University of Georgia. This and his now-piqued interest in plant biochemistry resulted in his deciding to move after graduation — on an international-student scholarship program — to Georgia to earn his Ph.D. in Biochemistry.
But for all his scientific experience, his interests reach far beyond the laboratory, or even the potato field. In addition to earning his Ph.D., he’s studied Greek in order to be able to understand the Bible more thoroughly on his own. While teaching and working on his master’s by day, he attended night classes at a local seminary; and once in the States, found a pastor willing and able to continue tutoring him in Greek. In fact, one ambition he has yet to give up (and, not in the habit of giving up anything, likely never will) is his book. Growing out of his own Biblical studies is an interest in the inroads to his own language the Bible has made. He plans to write a history of the Bible in Spanish titled, of course, The History of the Bible in Spanish, and to be written, of course, in Spanish.
Alvarez’s life-defining interest, though, is his teaching. As any of his students can tell you, he loves his job — I think he has more fun in undergraduate teaching labs than he did working on his own research. Just as I asked him to share his favourite aspect of being a teacher at PCC, Dr. Geoffrey Holloway, his office-mate, walked in. “I get to work with some of the most talented students anywhere,” Alvarez was saying. “You guys are just —” Suddenly, Alvarez snatched a fun-size Snickers bar out of the air — it had been hurtling over my head and at his. “And the fact that my office-mate keeps giving me chocolates,” he said as he unwrapped the candy and popped it into his mouth.
When I asked him what his advice to a teacher would be, he told me, “Be as good as you can in what you do. This may be unorthodox, but I don’t think you need all this education training. Just care for your students and know your stuff.” And that he does. Besides loving his job, he’s good at it. Holloway describes him as “one of the better biochemists I know,” and appreciates that he goes out of his way to master material beyond his own specialty. Dr. Shane Smith, Dean of Basic Sciences and Engineering at PCC, thinks that one of the characteristics which has made Alvarez such an adaptable and thorough professor is his aptitude for learning. Not only does he keep up with new developments in biochemistry, but he constantly broadens his knowledge. When he teaches a class outside his field, he studies the material first so he knows it inside and out; then he teaches it to his students. “That’s one characteristic of Dr. Alvarez: nobody has to teach him,” said Smith.
His servant’s heart is the one characteristic everyone seems to mention. ”Seldom a day goes by without at least one student meeting with him for advice, and he’s always willing to take time out of his schedule for them. Mrs. Loli Cunningham, a family friend of the Alvarezes, said, “He loves to serve people. Who doesn’t like a person so willing to serve?” She says that “he sees his students as his mission field.” Indeed, his testimony is more than evident in his willingness to help.
“Not only is he smart, but he strives to see his students succeed,” says Fadeke Oyeniya, a pre-medical student at PCC. Another student, Gloria Gonzalez, recalls a special birthday present she received from him when she was getting ready for her graduate school admissions test.
“He asked me what I was planning on doing, and I said I was going to take the GRE, but I didn’t have the money to go buy a book.” She couldn’t study until she could buy the study guide, and the GRE is not a test to wing. “Well, it was my birthday the next week,” she continued, “so he called me into his office and said, ‘Happy birthday,’ and handed me a GRE book.” When she tried to refuse, he just said, “Keep it, take it!”
He truly believes anyone can be what he has become and do what he has done, and this confidence is transmitted to his students. “He expects a lot from his students. He believes in giving one hundred percent, a hundred and twenty if possible,” said Cunningham. All that he requires of his students is effort, and he will work to make their success possible. “Study. Develop your brains,” he urges. Explaining his own accomplishments, he doesn’t claim great intelligence, but just good old-fashioned stick-to-it-iveness. “I was a doer,” he said, and what he has done, by simply doing, rather than sitting idly on his abilities, far outstrips what anyone resting on mere intelligence and talent can hope to accomplish.