Biology Professor Accepts Perkins Award

By Emilie Munson


On April 4, 2013, the Perkins Award for Excellence in Teaching was presented to Assistant Professor of Biology Catherine Combelles in recognition of her exemplary teaching in the classroom and her pioneering work in oocyte development. On a sunny afternoon, students and faculty gathered in a sunlit lecture room of McCardell Bicentennial Hall to celebrate this recognition, which Dean of Faculty Andrea Lloyd described as the “synergy (…) between teaching and scholarship.”

This year marked the 20th anniversary of the Perkins Award, one of the College’s most prestigious faculty honors. It is presented to mathematics and computer science professors in odd-numbered years and natural science professors in even-numbered years. Recipients are nominated by their department for their outstanding teaching and personal scholarship. The award includes a grant for scholarship, a citation and recognition on two plaques.

The Perkins Award is provided by founder of the mathematics department, Professor Emenitus Llewellyn R. Perkins and his wife, Middlebury College alumna, Ruth M.H. Perkins ’32.

With the assistance of several students, Combelles is currently studying the effect of antioxidants on oocyte development with the sponsorship of the U.S. Department of Agriculture. In the past, alongside several students, she has frozen oocyte cells to preserve cancer victims’ fertility. Later this year Combelles will submit a proposal to the National Institutes of Health to study the effect of obesity on fertilized oocytes.

Before arriving at Middlebury in 2004, Combelles received her B.S. in biology from the College of Charleston, her M.S. in zoology from the University of Hawaii at Manoa and her Ph.D. in cell, molecular and developmental biology from Tufts University. Combelles, a Toulouse, France native, was also a postdoctoral fellow in the Department of Obstetrics and Gynecology at Brigham and William’s Hospital in Boston, Mass. She has been published extensively, including many articles co-authored by Middlebury students. Recently, Combelles was promoted to associate professor of biology effective as of July 1, 2013.

In the biology department, Combelles teaches courses such as “Organelles and Cells, Developmental Biology” and the first year seminar “Making Babies in a Brave New World.”

At the ceremony, Combelles’s student research assistants raved about her care for her students and passion for her subject.

“She has an amazing infectious enthusiasm for everything she does,” said Ryan Brewster ’14. “For me, to observe a professional in her niche doing what she loves has been truly inspiring.”

In her acceptance speech, Combelles said that exciting and inspiring others is the most rewarding part of teaching.

“This will never be a boring profession,” said Combelles, who compared teaching to “an exercise in frustration.” She elaborated, likening teaching to research because of its experimental nature. “I was a professional student for so long and I feel now that I am still a student because in teaching, I am constantly learning.”

Combelles hopes that by teaching she can cast a broader net of influence by helping students and the future generation achieve great things.

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