Environmental work garners faculty five endowed posts

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Author: Jordie Ricigliano

President of the College Ronald D. Liebowitz recognized the efforts of five members of the faculty by honoring them with endowed professorships Sept 8. Stephen Trombulak, Grace Spatafora, Sunhee Choi, Sallie Sheldon and Andrea Olsen were hand chosen by Liebowitz to serve endowed chairs made possible through independent funds and donations.

“It’s quite a treat, an honor really,” remarked Trombulak, a professor of Biology and Environmental Studies. Trombulak was appointed to the Environmental and Biosphere Studies Professorship, the first chair of its kind at Middlebury.

Liebowitz described Trombulak’s work with the environmental program as “heroic” and credits the “current vitality” of the program to him. But Trombulak takes a more modest view of his achievements.

“More than anything, it has been a collective effort,” said Trombulak. “No one person has the experience, insight or creativity to do it all.”

Trombulak says his greatest achievement was pulling together a great staff to trade off directorship of the environmental program. Trombulak described his work as “difficult” and “long term” but reveled in announcing, “now, it’s the best damn environmental program in the country.”

Professor of Dance Andrea Olsen was named the Kathleen and William F. Truscott ’83 Professor in Environmental Studies. Liebowitz was impressed by Olsen’s extensive involvement in the environmental program and her ability to bridge the gap between art and science.

“Andrea Olsen has succeeded in broadening our vision of the arts,” said Liebowitz. “Students, colleagues and other members of the community can now see the body’s movement through space as an essential aspect of how we understand and create the environment around us.”

Professor of Biology Sallie Sheldon was named the Albert D. Mead Professor of Biology. Liebowitz felt Sheldon “demonstrated a commitment both to basic scientific research and environmental citizenship, as evidenced by her longstanding efforts to address the milfoil problem in Vermont lakes and ponds, as well as in other regions across the country.”

Professor of Chemistry and Biochemistry Sunhee Choi is proud of her new title – the John G. McCullough Professor of Chemistry – but she also reminds herself that distinctions are only secondary benefits to the job she loves so much.

“When I am teaching, all I want to do is teach,” Choi said. “When I am researching, all I want to do is research. As long as I can use my creativity, I am happy. I’ve just been so lucky to have the students I’ve had. Every day gets more and more fun.”

Professor of Biology Grace Spatafora agreed.

“I’ve always been a motivated professor,” Spatafora said. “My students are my inspiration.”

Spatafora was given the Irene Heinz and John LaPorte was given a Professorship in Pre-Medical Sciences. Liebowitz described Spatafora’s 23 years of work at the college as “a model for bench science at Middlebury. Her commitment to involving students in this research has elevated the profile of science at the college,” he added.

Kevin O’Rourke ’09, a Molecular Biology and Biochemistry major, believes Spatafora is “one of those professors who make Middlebury known for having the best professors in the nation.”

O’Rourke has worked with Spatafora since he started shadowing her lab meetings in his sophomore year. Within a year, he asked her to be his adviser.

“She has perfected the balance between guiding a student but also letting them make their own decisions and design their own experiments,” said O’Rourke, “which makes the research experience very rewarding.”

Spatafora, like her colleagues, was too modest to take all the credit for the appointment.

“We are all excellent teachers dedicated to our students,” said Spatafora. “I just do my thing and what happens, happens … It’s kind of like getting a 33 on the MCATs; it’s a personal achievement more than anything else.”

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