Written by Ingrid Ockert
James Cassidy doesn’t fit the stereotypical image of a scientist. Two star-shaped earrings dangle from his left ear. A fetching fedora is perched on top of his head. He’s swapped his white lab coat for a charcoal sports jacket. A chic checkered shirt peeks out underneath. His alert grey eyes are framed by dark glasses. When he walks into a lecture hall, students notice. Undergraduates and graduate students alike praise his engaging style, his passionate lectures and his dedication to dirt.
So, just who is this mysterious man of mulch? Although Cassidy is well-known at Oregon State University, both as a soil scientist and an instructor, he also has a not-so-secret identity: He’s a pop star. Cassidy plays bass for Information Society, a free-style electronic band, which reached popularity in the late 1980s. He still draws upon his skills as a performer while teaching students at Oregon State about crop and soil science.
“When I quit the music business,” Cassidy says, “I realized that I had learned a lot about public speaking, working with an audience and knowing how to read people.” He often compares teaching to performing music. Both, he says, require performers to be absolutely dedicated to their craft. As an instructor at OSU, Cassidy uses his abilities to connect with audiences and inspire them about science.
From the Land of 10,000 Lakes
Cassidy hails from the Twin Cities of Minnesota. He describes himself growing up as a nerdy kid who wanted to escape the suburban ghetto. In 1981, he and few high school friends started Information Society, reinterpreting hip hop and rock styles from the East and West Coast into a new electronic fusion. Information Society focused on a critique of popular consumer culture. “We were laughed at in Minnesota,” Cassidy recalls.” People were like, ‘Who are these guys wearing multi-colored jumpsuits?’ Everybody hated us, which meant we knew that we were onto something.”
In October 1988, their hit song, “What’s on your mind? (Pure Energy),” reached No. 1 on Billboard magazine’s dance chart and No. 3 on the hot 100 pop chart. An accompanying music video became a breakout on MTV. But the band soared to even greater popularity in Brazil, where the anti-establishment message resonated with a generation of young Brazilians. “We were one of the first western bands to come down there,” Cassidy says. When Information Society first arrived at the Sao Paulo Airport, their plane was mobbed by thousands of screaming fans. “When we were driving to our hotel. The cab driver had the radio on. Every single station had Information Society playing on it.” The band toured the country twice. At the Rock-n-Rio music festival in 1991, Cassidy played in front of 135,000 fans.
By the early 1990s, Cassidy had scaled a cultural Mt. Everest. “In our media-induced and celebrity-obsessed culture,” he says, “the highest level you can obtain is to be some sort of a rock star.” But for Cassidy, this popularity had come at a cost. A decade of tours had created tension within the members of the band. “People ask what it’s like to be a star. It’s your job to say it’s great, when really you’re empty and lonely.” He felt like a salesman peddling the same consumer culture that Information Society rejected. Disillusioned, Cassidy quit the band in 1993. He wasn’t sure, however, what to do next. “I was done with the music business,” he adds. “I was ready for reality.”
Looking for a fresh start, Cassidy moved to Oregon in 1993. After browsing career catalogs at his local public library, he decided to become a fish farmer. “I knew that I liked nature and the outdoors,” he recalls. But he was looking for more than a career. After spending thirty years immersed in the money driven recording industry, he was searching for a deeper meaning of life. “I intuited,” he explains, “ that the outdoors was where the truth was.”
Coming down to earth
Cassidy found truth in a soggy farm field, on the banks of Corvallis’ Oak Creek. He had been at Oregon State University for two years, studying stream ecology and fisheries under the tutelage of Stan Gregory, professor in the Department of Fisheries and Wildlife. As an undergraduate, Cassidy had become fascinated with the interconnectedness of ecosystems. The tangibility of the natural world impressed him, especially when he compared it with the artificial façade of the recording industry. He wondered how water quality was affected by forests, animals and human activity.
In 1999, he collaborated with other Fisheries and Wildlife students to investigate contamination in Oak Creek, a small stream that runs through OSU’s agricultural fields. During a heavy rainstorm, he tromped out to take water samples from the flooded creek. As he filled plastic bottles with water, he started to wonder where it was all really coming from.
That’s when, soaked from head to toe, he had an epiphany. “It suddenly occurred to me,” he says, “that the water wasn’t from the rain drops falling into the creek.” The water had traveled over and through soil in the surrounding fields. Dirt was the missing link in Cassidy’s holistic understanding of the water cycle.
But soil, Cassidy says, isn’t important only in water quality; it touches every part of our lives. “Soil is the nexus of everything. It’s where everything really does come together.”
Popular culture dismisses dirt as, well, beneath us. A person trapped in poverty is “dirt poor.” A grimy old T-shirt is “soiled” or “dirty.” In our hypoallergenic culture, obsessed with perpetual cleanliness, we have forgotten the true value of soil. Dirt, Cassidy explains, comprises so much more than grains of sediment.
To Cassidy, soil is a four dimensional complex habitat with a direct relationship to human health. Just a pinch can contain a billion or more organisms. “And 99.99 percent of them,” he says, “we don’t know who they are or what they do. Every atom in your body has gone through the soil system billions of times over. Everything got its start in soil and everything goes back to it.” [Editor’s note: OSU soil scientist David Myrold leads the Terragenome project, an international effort to sequence the genes of all soil microorganisms.)
Cassidy grounded himself in the study of soil, earning a master’s degree in crop and soil science from Oregon State in 2002. After graduation, he worked as a researcher in the OSU Soil Physics Laboratory and continued his investigation into farm field filtration. He worked with soil physicist Maria Dragila to determine how vole holes affect the filtration and transport of water on farm fields.
Teaching and Tilling
Cassidy’s former career as a bassist seemed another lifetime ago. But, in 2004, a chance teaching gig threw Cassidy back into the past. A professor asked him to step in as a lecturer in an introductory soil science class. Cassidy agreed.
As he entered the lecture hall, the former rock star felt his blood pound. Eager eyes peered at him. He stood behind the podium before ninety students. The crowd buzzed with excitement. He was back on stage. “I was comfortable,” Cassidy says, “I could relax. I was funny. I knew how to reach them.” Every fall and winter, he gets back on stage and teaches basic introductory soil science to fresh undergraduates.
As he lectures, Cassidy draws upon his recent experiences as a student. He understands that every student approaches learning differently. “I know what it means to be a person who doesn’t know everything yet, because I didn’t go from high school being smart into college being smart. I was a poor student in high school, and I had to recreate myself as a student [in college]. So I’m still a student when I’m teaching. I know what they’re going through.” His zeal for soil piques the interest of his class as he deploys a variety of props (spray bottles, metal chains, sponges) to help his students understand theoretical concepts.
Cassidy acknowledges that many students are fascinated by his former career. “They think that I have some insight into popular culture, which they have been trained to worship, “ he says. “Yet here I am talking about soil. [It] makes them judge which is more important. And they realize that soil is more important, actually.”
To drive the point home, Cassidy has his students go out into the field and get their hands dirty. He’s created service-learning projects to expose students to the real-life applications of soil science. Students have tilled soil, developed sustainable cemeteries and taught children about soil. He says that service-learning projects provide students with a unique platform for learning. “Probably the best way of learning is experiencing. I developed these service learning projects to make them do something that is not possible in the lecture hall, in a book or online.”
Pop star. Scientist. Teacher. James Cassidy somehow manages to wear all of these hats with confidence and ease. While he still enjoys the life of a musician, he prefers his current job. “My life has so much more meaning now,” he says. Being a musician prepared him for a pitch-perfect career as a professor. “I’m lucky to have the backstory,” he says, “that has given me the experiences to allow me the opportunity to reinvent myself after the end of the band.” He gathered a set of skills completely applicable to another life.
But Cassidy has not forgotten his roots. The original members of Information Society reunited in 2006 and get together every other year to tour South America. They always return to Brazil. “We can still go down there and play in front of 10,000 fans,” he says. “It’s really fun because it’s not my life anymore. It’s just a trip down memory lane.”
While Cassidy’s careers have never converged, he says that his fans are aware of his new career. Onstage, he wears a shirt with “Soil” emblazoned on the front. Fans approach him afterwards and ask him about it. “It gets the fans thinking about what’s going on with the soil,” he says.
In July 2012, the band will return to Brazil to play, once again, in front of thousands. Until then, Oregon State students can enjoy Cassidy’s talented presentations in the lecture hall.
Read more about Cassidy’s service-learning projects in the Corvallis Gazette Times