A guest lecture by Harvard geneticist Raju Kucherlapati will be held to honor biology professor Robin Davies’ 25th anniversary on the faculty at Sweet Briar. The lecture will take place at 7:15 p.m. Tuesday, Feb. 4, in the 1948 Theater in the Fitness and Athletics Center, followed by a reception.
Kucherlapati, who is on the Presidential Commission for the Study of Bioethical Issues, advised Davies during her graduate studies at Princeton University.
“I had been talking to genetics students about the intellectual ‘families’ in science and … the importance of those mentoring relationships when Linda [Fink] and Janet [Steven] told me they wanted to do something special to celebrate my 25th anniversary at Sweet Briar,” Davies says. “I thought how wonderful it would be if our students could have a chance to hear from my mentor — and he said he’d do it!”
Celebrating Davies’ work as a teacher and researcher is a much-deserved honor, says Fink, Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology. Fink has been at the College for 23 years and knows Davies well. Like so many others, she especially values her colleague’s enthusiasm.
“I appreciate the interest she shows in whatever I’m excited about,” she says. “Anytime I wanted to try something innovative or creative, she’s been very supportive of that.”
Steven, an associate professor of biology, agrees.
“Robin was the chair who hired me in 2005,” she recalls. “I still remember her being so enthusiastic when she offered me the job. I think I appreciate her positive attitude the most; she is always so ready to get excited about biology and about student accomplishments.”
Shortly after Davies arrived at Sweet Briar in 1989, she began encouraging students to conduct summer research with her. Along with associate dean of academic affairs Jill Granger, who teaches chemistry, and Granger’s husband Rob, also a chemistry professor at Sweet Briar who taught at Virginia Military Institute at the time, Davies was instrumental in establishing a summer research program for students.
Working one-on-one with students is one of her strengths, Fink says, adding that Davies has “done a great job of teaching students laboratory techniques.”
Another is leaving a lasting impression — in addition to staying in touch with them.
“My research experience with Robin convinced me that I wanted to pursue cell research in graduate school, and my experience in her Developmental Biology course led me toward developmental biology,” says Laurel Speilman Rodgers ’03, assistant professor of biology at Shenandoah University. “I still email Robin periodically and visit when I’m on campus. I also had the pleasure to be a sabbatical replacement for her Intro to Cells and Microbiology courses during the spring of 2009.”
Classmate and alumnae board member Julia Schmitz also went into teaching. Now an assistant professor of biology at Piedmont College, Schmitz says Davies “showed [her] how to love science and research. Her excitement for science was contagious.”
Schmitz still remembers the moment she told the professor about her graduate school acceptance.
“She started screaming and jumping up and down in the hallway and then ran to give me a big hug,” she says. “Now I am the professor jumping up and down when my students tell me good news — I guess she rubbed off on me!”
Even long after her students graduate, Davies continues to offer support, says Shannon O’Neill Beasley ’02.
“Throughout my career in biology as a researcher and as a teacher, Dr. Davies has continued to be a supportive mentor and friend, providing guidance and nurturing each step of my journey,” she says.
If there is anything that could rival her qualities as a teacher and mentor, it’s Davies’ ability to get excited about and collaborate with other sciences. She helped develop the biochemistry and molecular biology major and is currently working with assistant professor of chemistry Abraham Yousef.
“The biochemistry and molecular biology major and the vision for that program are an example of Robin’s deep devotion to our Sweet Briar students and to the academic reputation and quality of the College,” Jill Granger says.
Davies also has been co-teaching a biomathematics course with professor of mathematical sciences Raina Robeva, with whom she co-authored a textbook, along with mathematics professor Jim Kirkwood.
To Robeva, “[Robin] is a fantastic colleague and collaborator [and] a champion for increasing the number of women in the sciences.”
Davies and Robeva will be offering a tutorial at the National Institute for Mathematical and Biological Synthesis at the University of Kentucky in June and at MathFest 2014 in Portland, Ore., in August.
Davies is especially proud of several research grants she secured in collaboration with other faculty, including her husband, visiting assistant professor of business Tom Loftus, who helped write the proposals. Two grants from the Jeffress Memorial Trust to fund summer research programs are part of her resume, as is a grant from the National Institutes of Health, which she obtained with Jill Granger. Working with Rob Granger, Davies secured a grant from the Commonwealth Health Research Board.
To students, alumnae and faculty alike, Davies has been a role model in and outside of the classroom. She’s also managed to negotiate career and family, raising three boys who “practically grew up in Guion,” Fink says.
Jill Granger, who was juggling work and family at the same time, remembers those days fondly.
“Because our families were so young at that time, it was kind of comical how we organized our work around child care and baby schedules,” she says.
Students who took Davies’ classes during the ’90s experienced a dedicated professor who was just as committed to her young children, proving that women can do both — and be good at it.
“She’s a rigorous teacher, but well liked by students,” Fink says.
Samantha Connelly ’14, a biology major who did research with Davies last fall, couldn’t agree more.
“[She] is a positive role model for every student [who] has ever worked with her,” she says. “She is one of the nicest people I know. I have learned that I should not be afraid to talk to her about anything. She has influenced me to be a better student, and I hope to one day have half as many accomplishments as her. I respect the heck out of this woman and I don’t want to let her down.”
Cheering on those around her is something Davies learned first-hand from her parents. Growing up in a semi-rural Philadelphia suburb, she was the eldest of three children. Her parents, a pharmacist and an airline mechanic, were always her biggest supporters, she says.
“From my mother I learned an appreciation for science, and from my father I learned how to use tools and take things apart and put them back together again,” she says. “I was always wandering around in the woods, collecting wildflowers and insects and garter snakes. We spent part of every summer in Wilkes-Barre, where I hunted fern fossils in the slag piles from the closed coal mines. My mother and father encouraged me to pursue my interests, and never objected to any of the items I brought home, whether animal, vegetable or mineral.”
Davies “fell in love with chemistry” in high school and majored in it at the Philadelphia College of Pharmacy and Science. At Princeton, she earned her graduate degrees in the Department of Biochemical Sciences studying molecular biology. From 1983 to 1986, she was a postdoctoral researcher at Harvard.
Davies then joined Gentest Corporation as senior molecular biologist, working on the development of cell lines to be used for genetic toxicology testing. After two years in the industry, Davies realized that her passion lay somewhere else.
“I missed having students around asking questions. Tom and I were engaged to be married and were talking about our future, and I realized that what I really wanted to do was teach at a small liberal arts college,” she remembers.
After interviews at a New England college and at Sweet Briar, the decision was easy.
“At my interview lecture, the students [at Sweet Briar] asked lots of questions — so many that the next class was waiting in the hall when we finally finished. … I loved how involved Sweet Briar students were, and are, in the important issues facing the College.”