Watson Bartlett Professor and Chair of Biology
At Knox Since: 1977
Linda Dybas is Watson Bartlett Professor of Biology. A 1964 graduate of the
College, she earned her Ph.D. at the University of Ulm and joined the Knox
faculty in 1977. In June 2006, she took a group of six students to conduct
marine biology research in Belize.
Thirty-four years, or 54% of my life, has been spent as a biologist at Knox College-as a prospective student in the late 1950s, as an undergraduate in the 1960s, and as a faculty member since 1977. Over those 34 years, I have come to appreciate -- and take advantage of -- the many opportunities available to Knox professors and students that help them open doors to personal success and professional careers.
My love of sciences and of Knox can be traced back to high school, where I truly enjoyed my science classes, was president of the biology club, and submitted my science projects to state science fairs. My first introduction to the liberal arts and science education at Knox was in 1958. Knox had just received a National Science Foundation ecology grant for high school students to study at Green Oaks Biological Field Station, becoming one of the first liberal arts colleges to have summer programs for high school students. I applied and was accepted.
I met two of Knox's legendary professors -- George Ward (1954-1982) and Paul Shepard (1954-1964) -- at the camp. In addition to their specialties, both professors had broad interests, and their courses included the place of humans in nature. After camp, I knew Knox was where I wanted to study science.
As a Knox biology student, I appreciated the open-ended and investigative approach to many of the labs and field experiences in my courses. They were fresh and engaging, as opposed to what is referred to as a "cook-book" approach to science, characterized by carefully following directions to get the required result. Although I didn't personally conduct an Honors project, students had plenty of opportunities to complete Honors or perform independent research; however, there were few opportunities for students to present their research off-campus.
A number of Knox's science faculty were involved in research while I was an undergraduate. Billy Geer, Clara A. Abbott Professor Emeritus of Biology, joined the faculty in 1963 and, through continuous grant-funded research, actively involved students in his study of fruit fly genetics and metabolism. His research lasted for more than 30 years, and his model of engaging students at various stages of their education became the model for me, as well as other future faculty.
After graduating in 1964, I pursued higher education at three different academic institutions and held three different scientific research positions. It was during this time that I began to really appreciate my Knox education-I found Knox prepared me for a scientific life by teaching me to think and to communicate.
When I returned as a faculty member in 1977, my view of Knox was no longer that of a student. I soon discovered that modern science costs money. The biggest challenge Knox faced-and still faces-is how to keep laboratory facilities up-to-date for students and how to support faculty and student research.
When I first joined the faculty, Knox's facilities were not adequate for my own research in invertebrate biology, so I became a visiting scientist at other institutions during the summer. Through external funding, I was eventually able to adequately equip my lab so that, with the exception of collecting marine specimens, all my research was visible to and could involve students.
Over the years, Knox's institutional commitment to faculty development, through both grants and internal programs, has grown. Particularly helpful to me are the writing across the curriculum workshops, matching grants to purchase modern equipment for labs, and faculty development funds. I frequently amaze my colleagues at other institutions with the fact that Knox has a faculty development grant that enables faculty to travel to professional meetings in order to stay up-to-date in their fields.
With the help and encouragement of Knox science faculty, many of whom belong to professional societies, science students now regularly pursue and present their research off-campus. For example, I regularly bring Knox students to the Illinois State Academy of Science annual meeting, where they can present their original research. The academy also awards student grants to help support their work. There are also specific science conferences for undergraduates, such as the Council on Undergraduate Research, at which Knox students won "best presentation" awards in the 1980s and 1990s. Today, students present their research at national and regional scholarly conferences, open to undergraduate, graduate, and professional scientists.
In turn, Knox students inspire the faculty. I find it incredibly exciting to work with students at this stage of their education -- to see them question, apply techniques, analyze data, and work on science writing and communicating skills. Their fresh approach is contagious. When students think about research projects, they don't usually think in terms of boundaries between faculty members. Student research projects in the sciences often span the expertise of two faculty members, sometimes within the same department but, just as commonly, between two departments like psychology and biology. These projects open doors for valuable research opportunities, as well as faculty-faculty collaborations.
New programs of study have been created in direct response to increasing student interest in these areas. External grants from organizations such as the Howard Hughes Medical Institute helped establish the new neuroscience major, and the Rockefeller Brothers Fund helped create Knox's program in environmental studies. With external funding, students are able to stay on campus during the summer and winter break, allowing them to undertake larger research projects.
In addition to more support for and encouragement of Knox's science faculty and students, the number of women scientists at Knox has greatly increased since I was an undergraduate. When I was a Knox student, there was only one woman professor in the sciences. When I joined the faculty 13 years later, I was one of eight women faculty members and the only woman in the sciences. I am proud to say that women students today have plenty of women role models in most of the sciences at Knox. But there is still room for improvement, especially in the area of representation of women of color.
As a long-term member of the Knox community, I am enthusiastic about the direction of the sciences at Knox, especially in regards to the opportunities for students to conduct independent research and to further their professional careers. It is more important than ever to have broadly educated scientists who address the issues of our modern world. It is also important to provide educational opportunities to all students regardless of gender, ethnicity, or economics. Knox succeeds on both counts.