June 06, 2009
Mr. President, it is my honor to present Billy Wayne Geer, candidate for the degree Doctor of Science.
Bill Geer, arrived at Knox College in 1963 shortly after finishing his Ph.D. I was an undergraduate at Knox then and my biology class visited his lab to look at fruit flies. By the time I joined the biology faculty at Knox in 1977 Bill had a world-wide reputation in his field of genetic and dietary control of metabolism in the fruit fly, Drosophila melanogaster. His "fly lab" was buzzing and its impact on students, colleagues and the way science was taught and practiced at Knox College was evident. Bill epitomizes what is right about American education. He has the teaching ability to synthesize the early history and foundations of biology with modern coverage that leads up to the cutting edge. Bill is soft spoken with a delightful sense of humor that holds students attention to the content of his classroom lectures.
Perhaps Bill's strongest influence on biology students that have come through Knox has been in the laboratory. For Bill, there is little distinction between being a scientist and being a science teacher. In his lab classes students learned basic skills but he challenged them to think and get answers on their own. He has an innate ability to attract and inspire confidence and commitment in science students. When asked how he did this, he said, "The only answer I have is that I don't tell them they can't do it." In his 35 years at Knox he has had 160 undergraduate student research assistants. Students under Bill's mentorship felt they were well-equipped to become the future's scientists. The names of students as co-authors on publications were well-earned. But his "lab research groups" did more than turn out publications, the fly lab team comprised a "real scientific community; they were models of collaborative science. In fact, ninety five percent of the former fly lab students have gone on to careers in science.
Bill set the tone for the dynamics in the Biology Department as well. As a new professor in 1977 I was provided with an office as well as a research lab. This, in 1977, was in itself unusual for an undergraduate institution; but it was the norm here at Knox. Bill's legacy to the department is that today, we all operate research labs that involve students as co-workers in the Geer style and as a result, have developed a real sense of scientific community that nurtures the learning and practice of science. Without a doubt, Bill's greatest impact on the scholarly activities of Knox College is the inspirational example he has set for the synergy of research and teaching.
Bill was graduated from Northwest Missouri State University in 1957, had an interim career as a high school biology teacher in Missouri, then completed his master's degree from the University of Nebraska in 1960 followed by a Ph.D. in genetics from University of California-Davis. Along a member of the Knox faculty, Bill held a joint appointment as Professor of Pharmacology at Rush Medical College from 1979 - 84. Bill successfully obtained external, peer-reviewed funding continuously, much of it from the National Science Foundation, from 1967-1998 when he retired. The funding allowed him to equip and maintain a first class research laboratory. In all, he produced 100 refereed publications and his early work on the genetics of reproduction of Drosophila melanogaster is considered a classic.
It is difficult to separate Bill the teacher from Bill the world class Drosophila geneticist. Over the years Bill has achieved numerous honors for both his teaching and research. In 1986 he was the recipient of the Burlington Northern Foundation Faculty Achievement award, in 1990 he was the Illinois Professor of the Year, in 1991 he received the Alumni Association Citation for Excellence Award from University of California-Davis, and in 1995 he became a Fellow of the Illinois State Academy of Science.
It is impossible to talk of Bill Geer without also mentioning his wife, Judy, who has provided a welcoming home for students and faculty along with being Bill's support person. I'm sure I speak for Bill and the fly lab group in thanking Judy. Judy, you have our endless appreciation and thanks for all you have done.
It is fitting for Knox College to honor Dr. Billy W. Geer who exemplifies so much of what our college has sought to foster in our faculty and students.
Mr. President, for his commitment to the education of our students and for his contributions to his field of genetic research, I present to you, Dr. Billy W. Geer for the Degree of Doctor of Science.