Drs. Bruce and Debra Saul are the embodiment of Jaguar Nation.
The couple, who were born and raised here, attended Augusta College and met when they became lab partners in Dr. Harvey Stirewalt’s genetics class.
They started dating soon thereafter, and the relationship grew when they spent a lot of time together out in the field collecting specimens for aquatic biology class.
“Our first official date was going to the original Star Wars movie,” Debra recalls.
They were married almost two years later in an outdoor ceremony in the “quadrangle” behind Payne Hall.
“As far as we know, we were the first and only couple to be married on the Summerville Campus.”
After over 30 years of working in the classroom and in the field doing research, Bruce retired last fall as professor and assistant chair of the Department of Biological Sciences in the College of Science and Mathematics, while Debra is retiring this spring as a senior lecturer in the same department after 15 years at Augusta University.
Although they both enjoy teaching very much, it was not always the endgame for either of them.
“We both have been able to do something that many people never get to do,” Debra Saul said. “We have been blessed to each have two very different and rewarding careers.”
While they are no longer in the classroom, Bruce and Debra have left their mark on countless students.
Developing their passionWhile at AU, Bruce Saul taught introductory biology, environmental biology, zoology, aquatic biology, marine biology, ichthyology and fish and wildlife techniques. He conducted research with students on the fishes of St. Catherine’s Island, Georgia, for over 25 years with the help of several grants from the American Museum of Natural History. He also supervised student research on wild pig populations along the Savannah River for over 10 years.
Bruce started college at the University of Georgia where he majored in microbiology; he then transferred to Augusta College and majored in biology. He said, “Initially I wanted to become a veterinarian, but I developed a love for ichthyology and research through the influence of Dr. Harvey Stirewalt.”
After receiving a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Augusta College in 1978, Bruce attended the University of Tennessee-Knoxville to pursue his Master of Science in Wildlife and Fisheries Science and his PhD in ecology.
“After earning my PhD, I worked as a fisheries biologist for the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, and a private environmental consulting company,” he said. “When Dr. Stirewalt retired, I applied for his vacant faculty position and was fortunate to be selected. I have enjoyed following in my mentor’s footsteps for 30 years.”
Debra Saul taught introductory biology, environmental biology, and anatomy and physiology — the latter being her sole teaching discipline for the past 10 years.
Debra initially majored in math and had wanted to become a teacher. But once she discovered biology, thanks to her professor Dr. Jim Bickert, she became fascinated by it and received a Bachelor of Science in Biology from Augusta College in 1978.
Because she loved trying to figure out what was wrong and how to fix it, she became interested in a career in the medical field and earned a DVM from the University of Tennessee College of Veterinary Medicine in 1984.
“I had always loved animals, so becoming a veterinarian allowed me to combine these two ‘loves,’” she said. “Although I became a veterinarian, I still was a teacher in some ways because I educated my clients on the care of their pets. After owning a stationary veterinary practice for almost 20 years and a mobile veterinary practice for five years, I reached a point where I felt a need for a change. After selling my practices, I jumped at the opportunity to teach when a position became available.”
Leaving their mark
Through the years, many students have expressed their gratitude to the Sauls for teaching, inspiring and motivating them.
Jessica Miller, who is currently a nature center supervisor in Colorado, graduated in 2013 with a bachelor’s degree in biology.
Bruce Saul was her professor for several classes as well as her academic advisor and undergraduate research advisor.
Miller said he seemed quiet, reserved and serious during her first interactions with him.
“It turns out that he is a goofball that injects sarcasm and puns into conversation while somehow maintaining a professional demeanor,” Miller said.
She said it wasn’t until after graduation that she realized just how much he had impacted her life.
“He altered my life path for the absolute best. I’ve spoken at a couple of career days and my top advice to students is ‘Make friends with your advisor or a cool professor and be involved,’” she said.
“Entering college, I thought I wanted to be a veterinarian, but Dr. Saul saw my interests and pulled me in to help with fish research on St. Catherine’s Island and complete my own undergraduate research looking at wildlife using trail cameras. My first internship out of college led to a full-time job in the field I’m still in, which is nature interpretation. I consider myself super lucky career-wise. I’ve just been going with the flow, but he was the one who pushed me in.”
Tonya Bonitatibus is a riverkeeper and the executive director of Savannah Riverkeeper, which serves as the primary guardian of the Savannah River. She worked closely with both Bruce and Debra Saul, first in high school at Debra’s veterinary clinic then as Bruce’s teaching assistant and research student at St. Catherine’s Island.
Bonitatibus knew from the beginning that both of them were going to play a crucial role in her life.
“I knew she was going to be an influence from Day 1: a strong woman running a successful business helping people. And he became one of my favorite humans. I knew instantly I wanted to be like him. I wanted to be around him and worked extra hard to make that a reality. He changed my entire life. I have no doubt I wouldn’t still be here if it weren’t for doing field work with him, truly falling in love with our natural world.
“He had a passion for teaching students, engaging in the real world to make science feel ‘real.’ One of my favorite things about him is how he never answered questions, he would only point you in the right direction to find the answer. He was one of the very few bio teachers who strived to create students who could critically think through problems.
“While Debra made me want to strive to be a veterinarian, Bruce showed me how I could still follow my passion and still help the world around me but in a slightly different way that matches my personality. I tell people often Bruce told me, ‘You don’t want to be a veterinarian; you want to play with fish.’ Turns out he was right.”
Kush S. Patel graduated with a Bachelor of Science in Cell and Molecular Biology in 2019 and is currently a medical student at the Medical College of Georgia. He first met Debra Saul when he took her anatomy and physiology courses and later served as a volunteer teacher’s assistant.
“Dr. Saul is one of the most amazing professors I have ever had. While I was an undergraduate student, it was the norm to hear upperclassmen say, ‘You absolutely need to take this class with Dr. Saul. She is the best!’” he said.
“She is unique in that she treats her students as if they are her own children. Every day, she brought her cheerful mood and contagious enthusiasm to the classroom. She truly listened and paid attention to the needs of students, even offering to create additional study guides, lesson plans, and exam reviews when the class was struggling with certain subject matter.”
Patel said she consistently did a phenomenal job in presenting the material in a digestible and exciting way. He also credits her previous work as a veterinarian that allowed her to bring her clinical expertise into the classroom and frame her lectures into real-world vignettes.
“My experiences with her truly made my transition to medical school much easier to the point where I felt like I had an edge in terms of anatomy, histology and physiology,” he said. “Dr. Saul has even supported her past students at their respective graduations and white coat ceremonies, which is very meaningful, especially to me.”
Patel said when he met Debra Saul, “she had the kind of personality where she already loves you even before meeting you.” His level of respect continued to rise after working as a TA in one of her anatomy classes.
“She is someone I look up to as a role model; her passion for teaching and caring clearly shows in her work and interactions with students,” he said. “I feel as though I share that passion and can even see myself following a similar path to teaching as I progress through my career. Not to mention, the level of support and quality of sound advice that she has given me to this point has been second to none.”
Bonitatibus said Bruce Saul is always a text away whenever she needs advice on something, whether it be how to handle a situation or just a friend to lean on.
“I have no idea how many times I have reached out to him throughout the years for help, but the number is not small,” she said. “And now with their retirement, I hope the regularity that I am able to pull them into my nonsense will only increase.”
Bonitatibus knows her current life trajectory would be different if it had not been for both of the Sauls.
“I have no idea where I would be right now if it had not been for both of their influences. I feel certain there is no way I would be a riverkeeper, no way I would have found the love for Georgia and our resources the way I have, and for sure I wouldn’t have the network or the badge of one of ‘Bruce’s kids’ without them,” she said.
“Bruce allowed me to grow into myself, foolishness and all, never judging, only guiding. He did this for so many students that have gone on to amazing careers. I feel so incredibly lucky to have them in my life.”
Miller and Patel have also thrived thanks to the life lessons they acquired over the years from the Sauls. Miller reflected on how one of Bruce Saul’s courses on wildlife conservation issues shaped the way she serves guests as a nature center supervisor.
“The class was taught almost entirely by the students. We had to give thorough presentations while he quietly took notes, and there was a lot of class discussion,” Miller said. “This style of teaching is so helpful in leading nature tours and programs; guests get the best experience when it’s more immersive.”
Patel thinks the biggest lessons he learned from Debra Saul stemmed from the way she goes about her work.
“She always has the best outlook on life and gives her best effort toward her students. She is in her profession for the right reasons and is an inspiration to many students,” he said.
“I can only dream of having as fulfilling of a career as she has had. Additionally, I can confidently say that I am so fortunate to have Dr. Saul in my life as a teacher, mentor, friend, and a second mother. She will be dearly missed at Augusta University. On behalf of all her past students, I would like to wish her a happy and fulfilling retirement.”
Life after teaching
Bruce and Debra Saul say they will miss the daily one-on-one interaction with students and the times when they would see a student have an “aha moment” when something sinks in and they understand. They will also miss watching students grow academically during their time at AU and move on to higher endeavors.
“After doing research with students on St. Catherine’s Island for so many years, I will miss watching students develop a love of fisheries biology and field research,” Bruce also said.They are looking forward to going to the beach and camping across the U.S. in their travel trailer. When not traveling, they plan to fish, catch up on reading, work in the garden and enjoy more time with their family and two Labrador retrievers.
As they enjoy their time away from the classroom, they look back fondly on their years and know they made a difference.
“Through the years, many students have thanked me for teaching, inspiring and motivating them, and for being their friend,” Bruce said.
“I have maintained relationships with many students after they have graduated, gone to graduate or professional school, and gone on to pursue their careers. Many of my students have received master’s and PhD degrees and become excellent teachers, researchers, physicians, dentists, pharmacists. Watching them develop a love for science and research and seeing them accomplish their goals and excel in their careers is very rewarding.”
Debra Saul echoed those sentiments.
“Through the years, many students have thanked me for teaching and motivating them, and pushing them to be their best,” she said.
“Students who have gone on to nursing school, dental hygiene school, medical school, or other health-related fields have thanked me for preparing them for the rigor of professional school. It is very rewarding to see them accomplish their goals and to know that I have played a small part in helping them do that. I still maintain relationships and stay in contact with many students after they have graduated or entered the workforce.”