When a position opened up in Castleton University’s science department six years ago, the committee was all set to hire the first applicant, who Professor Helen Mango recalls was a solid choice. Even if no one better came along, they knew they were all set.
The second interviewee, she said, was “a complete dud,” and that first person was looking better all the time.
Then “Palmer” walked in – “and we were like ‘never mind the first person, we have found our colleague!’” Mango said with a laugh.
“She brought what they call a resurrection plant to her interview, which is something that just looks like a dead bunch of sticks, and then you put it in water and it turns green and starts growing again … That made an impression on me. She was just so enthusiastic. She loved what she was doing,” Mango said.
The interview consisted of giving a lecture about genetic adaptations in plants, and Christine Palmer knew the ability of the resurrection plant to go from all but dead to thriving in the matter of 30 minutes would work as the perfect demonstration.
“I brought it in and I was like ‘ah, Dr. Garcia, why don’t you help me out here?’” Palmer said. “I gave him a thing of water and I gave him the plant, and – I clearly was just having fun, so that was probably a really honest representation of what I would be like as a teacher. I handed it to him and he put it in the bucket and he added the water and I looked at it. And I looked around the room and I said, ‘do you know, it helps when the roots go down,’ and the whole room just cracked up.”
And just like that, Christine Palmer was part of the team, the family.
“It was like they wrote it for me,” she said. “And quite frankly when I got here – I’m sure you feel it too – this place is a family. And the science department is hilarious,” she said with an eager smile.
Palmer’s colleagues are as happy to have her as part of the team as she is to be here.
“Palmer is fantastic,” professor Cynthia Moulton said. “I love that she’s my colleague because she’s fun, engages students, and is passionate about science.”
Illustrating that passion
Professor Andrew Vermilyea has a very different style of teaching, but says the majority of students tend to really enjoy Palmer’s enthusiastic methods.
“We hired her because we thought that students would be really excited about science after they had her as a teacher,” he said.
If they aren’t, it certainly isn’t for lack of excitement on her part.
“SCIENCE IS SO MUCH FUN!” she said with an ear-to-ear grin. “I have this burning desire to jump up and down and wave my arms, and help everybody see that science is so cool!”
Her passion for teaching started back when she was still in college, when she had to give a class presentation about some new science research, and hers was about the 21st amino acid.
“I remember teaching the class, and just thinking this is such a cool story!” she said excitedly. “I want to tell you all this awesome story!”
And that’s pretty much what she’s known for: enthusiasm, energy, passion.
Student Amanda Harris describes her as “hyper!”
Palmer is an average height, lean, with long, dark hair pulled up into a bun. Her usual attire is something like a t-shirt, hiking pants and running shoes, with her main accessories being the sunglasses perched on her head and a pen or two tucked into her hair.
She loves running, hiking, backpacking, traveling and adventure of any kind. She grows her own food, cooks on a woodstove, does all her own home repairs, and sleeps in a hammock, whether at home, outside, or in the office. There’s still a little hole in her office wall where the hammock once hung.
Her travel buddy, Monti
Palmer can also fix her own car, a 1965 Dodge Dart she and her dad pulled out of a junkyard and rebuilt 12 years ago.
“You’ll see him driving around, this little tan thing,” she said, smiling fondly. “He’s driven all over the country with me. It’s kind of like having your buddy with you.”
His name, Monti, means “to climb, to rise up and to assemble,” which, Palmer said, is appropriate because “he, indeed, rose up from the junkyard, was assembled, and now happily climbs mountains with me.”
“He’s like a 20-year-old, a little difficult, and sometimes he misbehaves,” she said.
Once, his clutch broke on the way to school, and instead of calling a tow truck, she and a student fixed it themselves.
“I went out into the parking lot,” Vermilyea said, “and she was under her car with a student and they were welding her car back together – in the parking lot!”
Palmer’s handiness with cars and tools comes from her parents, who were homesteaders in Connecticut, of all places.
“My dad builds everything – he’s an engineer,” she said. “My mom braids rugs and weaves baskets. They’re homesteaders, they did it for utility. And I just loved it.”
Growing up close to the land really instilled in her a passion for the outdoors from a very young age.
“I would sleep outside and name all the trees,” she said. “When it was raining I would rescue all the earthworms from the driveway, cause I knew they would die tomorrow! Even as a 3-year-old, I was wet-sanding car parts and rescuing animals,” she said, chuckling at the memory.
So, coming to Vermont was like coming home.
“When I came to Vermont, it was just like – my people! So, I was very excited about that,” she said.
She found her home by looking at a Google Earth night map.
“I picked the spot that was the very darkest on the map and said ‘there, I want to live there,’” she said.
As much as Palmer loves Vermont, however, she also loves to travel, saying she has “a bad case of wanderlust.”
She’s been to all 50 states, Australia, New Zealand, Costa Rica, Panama, Iceland, and a bunch of places in Europe, to start the list.
“I like being invisible,” she said. “Part of why I love traveling is that I always travel by myself, and nobody knows me! No one knows where I am. I could go anywhere. The complete freedom to me is – that’s why I love the adventures. I crave freedom.”
One of her favorite places is the redwood forests out west. Redwoods are one of her two favorite kinds of plants “because they’re unbelievable,” she said.
“It’s just this feeling of incredible peace and strength and thoughtfulness… this picture of resilience and grace,” she said.
Her other favorite plant couldn’t be more different.
“They’re just so misunderstood,” she said in sympathetic voice. “They’re delicious, they’re beautiful… they’re so cheerful, and they’re so overlooked. They’re like sunshine,” she said.
Palmer tends to gravitate toward natural places when she travels, and all of her favorite places tend to be away from cities and among trees.
For someone like Palmer who loves the outdoors, living in the city is hell, but she did it while attending University of Pennsylvania for graduate school. She says it was probably the hardest time of her life, but the lessons it taught her are more than worth it.
“I ended up in the inner city in Philadelphia, at UPenn. A prestigious school with a great program, but it was probably the most painful time of my life,” she said.
“At the same time, I learned a lot about what was important to me… When you walk down the street here, you don’t even notice that there’s grass and trees, and that the air is clean,” she said, adding that she also appreciates having learned to navigate a city and enjoy the good things cities have to offer.
“I wouldn’t look forward to doing that again, but I wouldn’t do things different.”
Be your best person
Angela Golding, one of Palmer’s students and research intern, describes Palmer as dynamic and vibrant and says she has found a strong, female role model in her as a strong woman in a traditionally male-dominated field.
Golding also admires her selflessness when it comes to her students. She works really hard for them – especially those who are also willing to put in the effort.
“She’s always willing to sacrifice her time and energy for anyone that’s also willing to do the same,” Golding said. “She really respects those that like to show initiative to be their best person.”
It’s in Palmer’s nature to constantly strive to be better, to want to challenge herself and reach new heights, to give 100 percent all the time to whatever she does.
“She’s so hard on herself,” Mango said. “She really is a perfectionist, and she keeps thinking she’s doing a less-than-perfect job, and it drives her crazy. And then it drives me crazy, because what she does is good.”
One of Palmer’s favorite ways to challenge herself is through running.
“She does like to push herself, mentally, but also physically,” said Vermilyea, who is also an ultra runner. “She’s a little risk-adverse, so doing a big race like that was an important thing for her to try,” he said.
Both of them have run races more than 50 miles long.
“It was awesome,” Palmer said. “You get past the point of tired, you’re just floating along. It’s the most connected I’ve ever felt.”
A happy professor
Back in Palmer’s office, a big metal desk takes up much of the room, but appears to be used for storage more than anything else. The big, soft head of a frog costume tops the pile. His job is to cheer up students who are having a rough time, because holding him makes you feel better, Palmer says. A bookshelf along the back wall is lined with plants that spill over the edge of their pots and cascade over the shelves below.
On one of the lower shelves, a resurrection plant sits on a plate, dried-out and contorted. It’s the same one Palmer had poked fun at Garcia for putting in the bucket upside-down during her interview.
“To be fair,” Palmer said, “he got me back.”
Before her interview, Palmer had called the department’s little autoclaves cute because of their small size. Palmer still vividly remembers when Garcia called to tell her she’d gotten the job, a call which came sooner than she expected.
He told her he had a question: “do you think you’d be able to do your research with those tiny little autoclaves?” Palmer recalls being a little nervous, and didn’t know what to say except “uh, yes,” at which point Garcia cut her off and said “oh, just kidding. You’ve got the job!” she said, laughing at the memory.
Before she accepted, she told Garcia she’d take the job “only on one condition: you’re gonna have to throw in a foam finger,” she said.
He sent her one in the mail.
“So, I got my Castleton foam finger,” she said, placing her hand inside and holding it up. “It takes all types, and right from the start, we’ve had fun,” she said.