Friday, February 12, 2010

Biology faculty meeting turns deadly in Alabama...

This one hits a bit too close... I am stunned. As a biology faculty member myself, and one who is currently up for tenure, I am really shocked by what happened in the University of Alabama in Huntsville earlier today. I did not know any of the biologists involved, but won't be surprised to find someone just a couple of degrees of separation away. So I can't help but think about what the survivors and the victims' families are going through tonight, and would like to offer them my condolences, empty as that gesture may seem. The academic world (and blogosphere) is no stranger to the stresses of the tenure track, not to mention the usual publish/perish existential dilemmas and anxieties of life in the universities - particularly now when the economy is in such bad shape. There are the rare stories of graduate students attacking faculty members, and of students or faculty committing suicide. But never anything like this - a faculty member apparently going "postal" (to borrow that overworked cliche), committing mass murder! I guess we'll hear a lot more about this in the coming days... although the cable news channels seemed surprisingly devoid of coverage this friday evening (although I did find this video of a press briefing). We have our departmental faculty meetings on fridays too, and sometimes they may seem interminable, but I'll take the tedium over this kind of excitement any day. Having seen (in the mirror, sometimes) my share of stressed out / neurotic / manic-depressive professors, scientists, and graduate students, I feel a mix of horror and fearful curiosity about what went down there in Huntsville, and what may have caused it. What a sad note to end this Darwin Day. Here's an excerpt from the latest New York Times report, with some emerging details:

The Huntsville Times, citing a university official, reported that a biology professor was being held in the shooting. According to a faculty member, the professor had applied for tenure, been turned down, and appealed the decision. She learned on Friday that she had been denied once again..

The newspaper identified the professor as Amy Bishop, a Harvard-educated neuroscientist. According to a 2006 profile in the newspaper, Dr. Bishop invented a portable cell growth incubator with her husband, Jim Anderson. Police officials said that Mr. Anderson was being detained, but they did not call him a suspect.

Photographs of a suspect being led from the scene by the police appeared to match images of Dr. Bishop on academic and technology Web sites.

Dr. Bishop had told acquaintances recently that she was worried about getting tenure, said a business associate who met her at a business technology open house at the end of January and asked not to be named because of the close-knit nature of the science community in Huntsville.

“She began to talk about her problems getting tenure in a very forceful and animated way, saying it was unfair,” the associate said, referring to a conversation in which she blamed specific colleagues for her problems.

“She seemed to be one of these persons who was just very open with her feelings,” he said. “A very smart, intense person who had a variety of opinions on issues.”

The shooting occurred in the Shelby Center at the university around 4 p.m., officials said. Few students were in the building, and none were involved in the shooting, said Ray Garner, a university spokesman.

Officials said the dead were all biology professors, G. K. Podila, the department’s chairman; Maria Ragland Davis; and Adriel D. Johnson Sr. Two other biology professors, Luis Rogelio Cruz-Vera and Joseph G. Leahy, as well as a professor’s assistant, Stephanie Monticciolo, are at Huntsville Hospital in conditions ranging from stable to critical.



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