Catherine Badgley became director of the U-M Residential College in the summer of 2019, just in time for the pandemic. When Michigan’s “pause to save lives” sent students home before Thanksgiving, a college based on living and learning in a shared space suddenly went virtual.

“What I have learned is that humans are very adaptable,” says Badgley, a paleoecologist who’s done fieldwork around the world. “While this is not the kind of challenge any of us would have wished for, I don’t know a single person who hasn’t done something innovative and creative” in response.

“Faculty went to great lengths to create extra office hours, remotely,” she says, and she herself was pleasantly surprised to discover that “one-on-one meetings on Zoom were fairly satisfying.”

“Hybrid” classes, with some in the classroom and others remote, were less so. “We decided that meeting on Zoom was preferable, because at least everyone could see each other’s faces that way, and we didn’t have to be wearing masks, and we could–remarkably–have a conversation.”

In the fall of 2020, she took her first-year seminar on environmental science to the Arboretum and told the students “to pick a single tree … and learn about its natural history.” They returned to visit their trees repeatedly over the semester, noting the changes they saw in “tree journals.”

“What was surprising to me was how much they had made a strong connection to that tree, especially during a very chaotic semester,” Badgley says. Several told her that when their parents came to visit, they took them to see their tree.

“Having a relationship with something that had been there longer than they were alive … and might outlast them, seemed to be something that they found extremely grounding.”

Badgley’s mother, an art historian, and her father, a geologist, met at McGill University. The family–Badgley has two younger sisters and a brother–moved often for her father’s career. When she was in elementary school, they lived on the outskirts of Golden, Colorado.

“It was a stunning setting,” she recalls. “I remember, day after day, for years, being fascinated by how the rocks looked, near and far, how the weather moved across the Rocky Mountains and out onto the plains, and the sense of wholeness between the living creatures around me and the landscape they were growing in.

“That motivated me, from a very early age, to be not only curious about, but wanting to help protect, biodiversity and natural ecosystems from excessive exploitation … And it still motivates me today, in the classes that I teach.”

Another formative experience came during a visit to her mother’s relatives in Belgium. “One of my most cherished memories, when I was nine or ten, was being the person who got up early to walk from this family apartment we were staying in in Brussels, a couple of blocks to a bakery, and buying rolls that had just come out of the oven … and bringing them back, and eating them while they were still warm.

“The smell of that bakery, and the experience of bringing those fresh rolls back every day, motivated me to become a baker.”

While studying at Harvard’s Radcliffe College, “between my freshman and sophomore years, I started a pushcart bakery with a friend. We made bread six days a week, in a church basement kitchen … and then sold our goods on the street in Cambridge.”

She still bakes bread almost every week, but her career path led to academia. After graduating magna cum laude in geology from Harvard, she added a master’s in forest science and a PhD in biology from Yale.

She came to Ann Arbor in 1982 with the Michigan Society of Fellows. She stayed on as a research scientist in the Museum of Paleontology, where she did field work and met her husband, museum curator and ecology and evolutionary biology prof Gerald Smith.

Libby Douvan, then head of the Michigan Society of Fellows, also directed the Residential College. “She asked me if I’d be interested in offering a class,” Badgley says. She liked what she saw and has taught there, on and off, ever since.

“In a way, it represents an ideal for me of what academia should be all about,” Badgley says of the RC, “which is that students are held to high standards of accomplishment, and at the same time, they have a lot of choice in determining the course of their own education.”

She’s published more than fifty academic papers, many exploring how global change affects biological diversity. She also authored a children’s book–about bats.

“I wrote Pippa’s First Summer to try to change the negative attitude that so many people have towards bats before that attitude gets set,” she says. “I hope to show [children] that bats have interesting lives, are complex animals with unusual abilities, and that we should value rather than fear their presence in our habitats.”

Badgley also has a consultant’s credit on The Magic School Bus Explores Human Evolution, which takes the series’ school-teacher hero, Ms. Frizzle, and her students back in time. Badgley enjoyed interacting with author Joanna Cole and illustrator Bruce Degen through their editor, but to her regret, never met Cole in person (Cole died in 2020).

Badgley and Smith live on a 100-acre farm outside Chelsea, in a timber-frame home overlooking fields and wetlands.

“It’s not quite wilderness here,” she says, “but there’s a lot of natural ecosystem around us, and that has become a really important part of my life, because it takes me right back to my childhood.”

Another continuity is a deep relationship with dogs. “I really consider some of them my greatest teachers,” she says. “They perceive the world differently than we do. And they have different senses, so they’re gathering different kinds of information. Also, that they have this tremendous patience and forbearance …

“For me one of the real joys in life is learning not only from wonderful human friends and companions, but I feel I’m learning from other species, too.”

She laughs, and adds, “Including trees.”