Bio Retirements Mark Era of Great Change
The retirement of three longtime faculty members from Davidson's biology department this year represents in a graphic way the college's transition into a thoroughly modern scientific teaching environment.
John Williamson said that when he, Dave Grant, and Don Kimmel were learning the science, "it was all about dead animals and walking around outside." Now, as they retire, students are learning about the field of genetics Williamson helped blaze not by counting fruit flies to record eye color, but by analyzing printouts of DNA. The modern scientific laboratories in Watson Life Sciences Building, are computer-clean, compared to labs of yore that were sometimes cluttered with glassware and odd-smelling solutions.
When Grant and Kimmel arrived at Davidson around 1970, the department employed just five professors and enrolled about 15 majors. In the intervening years, the admission of women as students, growth of the health care industry, increased environmental awareness, and the college's commitment to upgrade facilities have swelled the department to a current staff of 12 professors and enrollment of almost 150 majors, second only to English in popularity.
Williamson retires with an excellent perspective on the rapid evolution of
genetic science. The first genetics textbook he studied as an undergraduate at
N.C. State University in the mid 1950s didn't even mention DNA, while one of his
recent hundred-plus articles describes a laboratory method for using a particular
protein as a model for studying DNA at several levels of the undergraduate
He grew up on a farm in eastern North Carolina, but his curiosity about the natural world led him to pursue a career in education. He earned a Ph.D. in genetics at the University of Georgia, and joined a group of early fruit fly geneticists at the University of Calgary who were working to unlock the secrets of heredity and health.
Davidson hired him to be chair of biology in 1981, with a mission to convert the department from classical, "lecture-and-lab" methodology to a modern research oriented department.
He has fulfilled those goals by in the roles of mentor, teacher, researcher, and administrator. He established his own research projects and has involved dozens of students in them. He hired faculty with an interest in shared research, and sought grants to fund the equipment required to facilitate research. He was successful in getting major grants in the early 1980s from the Pew Foundation and the Hughes Foundation, and began acquiring equipment such as a spectrophotometer, centrifuges, scintillation counters, new microscopes, and computers.
Students have responded by making biology one of the top three most popular majors in recent years. Williamson said, "We expected students to do research, hired young professors willing to involve them in research, and provided facilities that made it attractive. The college has put a lot of resources into making research part of the undergraduate experience, and has reaped rewards from it."
His primary personal research has been with enzymes that use NADP+ as a co-enzyme, working to purify and characterize them in a number of different species. With that background, he most recently developed with colleagues a broad curriculum for students to use IDH as a model enzyme at several levels of the curriculum. The department has earned an NSF grant to develop that curricular structure.
Williamson is ready to leave teaching and devote that time to other interests. Despite a steady record of publications, he figures he's a little out of date in the field. He says old-style geneticists like him who did breeding-and-counting experiments became obsolete about 1980. "You had to get on the DNA bandwagon about that time," he said. "I followed the tune of the bandwagon, but wasn't on it."
As he leaves the stage to a younger generation, he acknowledges the challenges that his quickly evolving field faces, but maintains confidence in the outcome. He sees genetic research leading toward drugs that more specifically and efficiently fight disease, as well as dramatically increasing the food supply.
He said, "Advances in genetic research are moving exponentially, and society moves at a lot slower pace. But the more we understand genetics, the more promise we see in it. I think we can apply that promise for a better society. The future of biology is wonderful, so I have to be an optimist." Expanded Williamson Story.
The study of ecology involves understanding of the interaction between organisms sharing a certain space on earth. Many people today purport to be ecologists, but few possess the basic scientific skill that requires. "Not many people can take an unknown organism and identify it," said David Grant. "We all talk about biodiversity, but you can't really understand it unless you can describe the individual organisms in it."
Grant is one of few scientists who does understand ecology in both its
complexity and simplicity. His ability to differentiate between organisms
according to minute differences in characteristics, and to classify them by their
Latin names, is a fading art among biologists.
He has specialized in teaching invertebrate biology. These small and water-borne creatures don't excite the imagination of most people as much as vertebrates, but Grant notes that they make up 95 percent of the animal kingdom and serve as the backbone for more exotic life forms. Grant's favorites are sea creatures and spiders, and he has amassed impressive legacies for both. He developed an extensive collection of spiders for the college, and has recently created a spider identification kit for area high school biology teachers.
He hopes the kit will help excite a future generation of scientists about systematic biology and good, old-fashioned Linnean identification with microscopes and chart books. However, he admits that type of visual identification seems quaint and laborious when compared to DNA analysis. "With DNA and all that's grown of of it, there's a feeling that systematics is like stamp collecting," he said. "It's true that once the genome is every species is identified we won't need systematists. But there are about 1.2 million described species on the planet, and I don't anticipate being around for that long!"
Grant earned his Ph.D. in 1965 from Yale University, and received a fellowship to work at the Woods Hole Marine Lab the following year. That experience led to his love of marine science, and his establishment of a coastal biology program for Davidson at the Duke University Marine Lab in 1979.
He has taken up to 30 students to Beaufort every two years since that time. In the past few years, the college's return to the semester system demanded extension of the experience to include several weeks of additional travel to sites southward on the Atlantic and Gulf coasts.
The Beaufort program has thrived on his love of human contact. He called it "total immersion" biology, referring both to the its marine nature and the intensity of the experience. Students and professor spend a tremendous amount of time together both in class and outside of class, and that's the way Grant likes it. Perhaps no teacher at Davidson enjoys contact with students as much as Dave Grant.
He claims it only took him about a week to learn the names of each of the 52 students in his early survey courses. He can name everyone in the "class" photo of each of his Beaufort groups, and in most cases tell what all 240 or so have done since they graduated. He loves catching up with former students at alumni reunions, carries an alumni directory with him when he travels so he can catch up with alumni on the road, and willingly participates in admission events to tell high school students about Davidson.
"I love to talk to people," he said. "I'd rather talk to them face-to-face than on the phone, and would rather talk on the phone than e-mail or write. The closer I can keep it to real-time or flesh, the better I like it."
His official retirement from the college will hardly be noticeable. "I'll be messing with people as much as they'll let me," he said. He has already signed up to lead two more marine biology trips, so he'll maintain his office in Watson Science Building for at least four more years. "I want to remain as a member of the college community, just with a little more flexibility," he said.
The biology taught at Davidson is his kind of biology. He's proud of the fact that students in his classes have graduated into a wide variety of professions. "Bio here is is taught as a liberating art," he explained. "It's the art of recognizing the beauty and function of the biological systems around us, and that makes you better at whatever you do."
For 29 years at Davidson, Don Kimmel has strived to help students form biological minutia into a holistic view of human life.
Kimmel contends that science rushes with much success toward revelation of finer and finer detail, but remains relatively weak in unifying that knowledge into principles of science as well as humanitarian uses in our lives. "Scientists need to look for synthetic understanding of how science can be used ethically in our lives and cultures rather than becoming trapped in science that's increasingly taking things apart," he said.
"Our discoveries about DNA, for example, are rapidly tying together genetics, biochemistry, and molecular biology. We know what our inheritance is and how it works, but that's not enough. We have barely begun to deal with the power of that information, or to convert it into understanding of either the higher levels of human biology or how human thinking and interaction work."
His greatest satisfaction of teaching at Davidson has been leading students to
realize the importance of looking at our lives both through a microscope and from
global orbit. "I want to synthesize as well as analyze," he said. "Surprising
things happen when you begin to put things back together. Students better
understand the relevance of science to their own lives."
Kimmel, the son of an anatomy professor, graduated from Temple University School of Medicine, but came to realize that his heart was closer to the classroom than practicing medicine. He earned a master's in physiological chemistry from Temple, then earned a Ph.D. in developmental genetics at The Johns Hopkins University in 1964. He taught medical science at Brown for six years, then came to Davidson in 1971.
He has taught it all here-from basic biology, to genetics, to cell and molecular biology, histology, and embryology. He developed a personal research interest in orb weaving spiders early in his career and has directed student projects in studying the geometry of their webs, brain size, and dependence on gravity.
Now he leaves teaching with the hope that the active, investigative methods of science will become the norm. He said, "What will happen in science is a turnaround in emphasis and, in teaching, a new definition of 'classroom' and 'lecture.' Scientists who understand things at small levels must also become leaders in new syntheses, overriding theories, and laws, as well as becoming leaders in imparting them to others. The people who do and teach science are in the best position to recognize how it must be integrated with the nonscientific parts of our lives."
Don Kimmel Speaks as Alumni Association Distinguished Lecturer
Top of Page