Department of Biology

  • In Remembrance: Ricardo Tapilatu

    The environment and conservation recently lost a major warrior. University of Alabama at Birmingham alumnus Ricardo Tapilatu (Ph.D., 2014, Department of Biology) tragically passed in Indonesia during a scuba expedition with students while trying to preserve some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world.

    The environment and conservation recently lost a major warrior. University of Alabama at Birmingham alumnus Ricardo Tapilatu (Ph.D., 2014, Department of Biology) tragically passed in Indonesia during a scuba expedition with students while trying to preserve some of the most pristine coral reefs in the world.

    Ricardo Tapilatu, Ph.D., UAB biology alumnus, tagging a female leatherback sea turtle.Ricardo was world-renowned for several decades of his work trying to save the most endangered population of sea turtle in the world, the giant Pacific leatherback sea turtle. Ricardo documented the long-term decline of this species which helped energize the international conservation program to prevent it’s extinction. He and his students also protected the most important nesting beach for this species in the western Pacific Ocean. Further, he helped document this species unique and amazing biology, including its 6,000-mile-plus trans-Pacific migrations from the nesting beaches in Indonesia to foraging grounds along the Pacific coast of the U.S.  

    But Ricardo’s impact and legacy extends well beyond his dedication toward the stewardship of the environment. Ricardo was a scholar, a dedicated mentor of students, a colleague, and to those who knew him, friend and family.  Ricardo’s unique, natural, and “down to earth” personality was contagious. That is what makes “leaders” and that epitomized Ricardo. 

    I continually think about his vibrant personality and laugh, and his ability to positively affect others, including here at UAB. Ricardo’s passing is a tragedy but his life is a classic example of how individuals can have a significant and lasting impact on the environment and the future of society.

    By Thane Wibbels, Ph.D., professor in the Department of Biology

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  • UAB graduate students receive Alabama EPSCoR Graduate Research Scholars Program Round 17 awards

    Five UAB graduate students received more than $118,000 in awards to strengthen graduate research projects.

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  • Birmingham Promise scholar credits on-campus living as critical to her success

    Supporting on-campus housing for Birmingham Promise scholars would enhance the well-rounded collegiate experience students aim to receive while at UAB.

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  • New summer program preps UAB freshmen for a budding doctor’s biggest test: Bio 123

    PEER-BUDS will counter COVID disruptions and school inequity by prepping 24 new biology majors with skills crucial to success in the lab and classroom. Another perk of the program, which runs Aug. 1-19: a $1,500 stipend.

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  • Study: Expert-led discussions change student perceptions of COVID vaccines

    After undergraduates in introductory biology courses talked with an epidemiologist and a physician specializing in infectious diseases, 60% who initially said they would not get vaccinated had changed their minds.

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  • Three UAB students named 2022 Goldwater Scholars

    Recipients receive a scholarship equal to the amount of their tuition, housing, fees and books up to a maximum of $7,500 per academic year.

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  • 22 faculty receive grants to fund developmental projects at UAB

    The grant program funds early-career faculty to advance their skills and careers across campus and beyond.

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  • 22 faculty receive grants to fund developmental projects

    The UAB Faculty Development Grant Program supports junior faculty with funding to pursue research, creative works and scholarly activity.

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  • Celebrate 15 books authored by CAS faculty in 2021

    Writing a book isn’t easy, but faculty in the College of Arts and Sciences produced more than a dozen in 2021. Thirteen faculty from eight departments wrote books on rhetoric and the Dead Sea Scrolls, pandemic bioethics, medical epigenetics, world politics and more.

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  • These faculty have worked at UAB for 50 years — here’s what sticks out to them the most

    Vithal K. Ghanta, Joseph G. Van Matre and Richard J. Whitley all have worked at UAB for five decades. Hear their short and sweet most favorite memories from their times as Blazers.

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  • Employees recognized at 2021 UAB Service Awards

    Twenty-seven College of Arts and Sciences employees who have worked at UAB for 20 years or more were recognized at the UAB Service Awards reception on April 11, 2022.

    Dean Kecia M. Thomas with Kim Hazelwood at the UAB Service Awards reception.Twenty-seven College of Arts and Sciences employees who have worked at UAB for 20 years or more were recognized at the UAB Service Awards reception on April 11, 2022. These dedicated colleagues were honored for their number of years of employment at UAB as of December 31, 2021.

     

    The UAB Service Awards are given to active employees beginning at five years of employment and at each five-year milestone. Employees who reach 20, 25, 30, 35, 40, and 45 years of service are invited to a reception on behalf of UAB President Ray L. Watts and presented with a service award pin, certificate, and a gift of gratitude.

     

    This year, Dr. Vithal K. Ghanta, professor in the Department of Biology and co-director of the Undergraduate Immunology Program, was honored for 50 years of service to UAB. Dr. Gregory Pence, professor in the Department of Philosophy and director of the Early Medical School Acceptance Program, was honored for 45 years of service. Congratulations to all our colleagues for their dedication and commitment to the University’s mission and vision.

    50-Year Recipient: Dr. Vithal K. Ghanta, professor in the Department of Biology

    20-Year Recipients

    • Kimberly H. Hazelwood, College of Arts and Sciences Dean’s Office
    • Erin Wright, Art and Art History
    • Tanja Matthews, Chemistry
    • Dr. Jacqueline Nikles, Chemistry
    • Daniel L. Butcher, English
    • Dr. Gale M. Temple, English
    • Dr. Lourdes M. Sanchez-Lopez, Foreign Languages and Literatures
    • Dr. Stephen J. Miller, History
    • Dr. John Heith Copes, Criminal Justice
    • Dr. Reinhard E. Fambrough, Music
    • Dr. Gitendra Uswatte, Psychology
    45-Year Recipient: Dr. Gregory E. Pence, professor in the Department of Philosophy

    25-Year Recipients

    • James R. Grimes, Advising
    • Margaret Amsler, Biology
    • Leslie C. Hendon, Biology
    • Adriana S. Addison, Psychology
    • Dr. Karlene K. Ball, Psychology
    • Wanda R. Fisher, Psychology
    • Pamela Y. Robinson, Psychology

    30-Year Recipients

    • Dr. Tracy P. Hamilton, Chemistry
    • Dr. Kathryn D. Morgan, Criminal Justice and African American Studies
    • Kimberly A. Schnormeier, Theatre

    35-Year Recipients

    • Dr. Edwin W. Cook III, Psychology
    • Dr. Edward Taub, Psychology

    40-Year Recipients

    • Dr. Howard L. Irving, Music
    • Dr. Franklin R. Amthor, Psychology

    45-Year Recipient

    • Dr. Gregory E. Pence, Philosophy

    50-Year Recipient

    • Dr. Vithal K. Ghanta, Biology

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  • Dang’s accomplished UAB experience culminates with presenting at Posters on the Hill

    Derek Dang, graduating from UAB with honors, will present to legislators at the prestigious Posters on the Hill event, hosted by the Council on Undergraduate Research.

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  • Raut recognized with award for outstanding contributions to service-learning through research

    Samiksha Raut, Ph.D., has been selected as the recipient of the award for Outstanding Faculty Contributions to Service-Learning in Higher Education in research.

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  • Sunken ‘Endurance’ is far more than a relic

    My first thought upon learning of the discovery of the Endurance was that despite the constant barrage of gut-wrenching news about the Russian slaughter of Ukrainian civilians and North Korea’s latest intercontinental missile test there is some good news about the human capacity to cooperate and endure.

    My first thought upon learning of the discovery of the Endurance was that despite the constant barrage of gut-wrenching news about the Russian slaughter of Ukrainian civilians and North Korea’s latest intercontinental missile test there is some good news about the human capacity to cooperate and endure. My second thought was “Thank God, I lived to see the day!” Not only one of the most storied shipwrecks of all time, the vessel’s discovery below the diminishing sea ice of the Weddell Sea focuses international attention on a region of our planet undergoing unprecedented climate change.

    James McClintock, Ph.D., photo by Michelle ValbergMarine Archaeologist Mensun Bound, the leader of the international Discovery Expedition that found the shipwreck seemed overwhelmed by the condition of the ship, exclaiming, “Without any exaggeration, this is the finest wooden shipwreck I have ever seen – by far.” There is an element of poetic justice in the sustainability of the Endurance, its largely intact hulk having rested upon the seafloor for 107 years. Shackleton famously sustained his party of 27 men for a year and a half after sea ice trapped the ship on January 18, 1915. The party endured subsequent hardships beyond imagination.

    Living aboard the stricken ship and then camped on the adjacent sea ice the men watched and listened as the pressure of the ice slowly cracked the hull of the Endurance like a walnut. The ship sank from sight on November 21, 1915. Five months later, the ice supporting the party’s camp broke apart and the men sought refuge in to life boats retrieved earlier from the ship. Negotiating ice and waves that soaked shivering men, the party managed to land on Elephant Island off the northern tip of the Antarctic Peninsula. Here, for the first time in 497 days, the men stood on land.

    Shackleton realized no rescue would happen, and he would need to take a small party and sail 780 nautical miles northeast with the hopes of reaching the whaling station on the island of South Georgia. Through a perilous sea, they sailed, reaching the island only to beach their boats and discover they would have to climb over the island’s central mountains to reach the whaling station. On April 20, 2016, Shackleton and two of his men at last reached the station: unkempt and grime-covered they were unrecognizable. Four and a half months later, on August 30, 1916, Shackleton made it back to Elephant Island to rescue the remainder of his party. In the end, not a single man was lost.

    As if gently placed by hand, the Endurance sits upright at a depth of 10,000 feet. Images taken by a remotely operated vehicle reveal a hull littered with sea anemones, sea cucumbers, starfish, brittle stars, and sponges. The pristine nature of the wreck is not by chance. Here in the icy-cold Southern Ocean, the types of microbes, worms and clams that infest and in some cases, burrow into and consume wood, are absent. Without such vectors of decomposition, the hull and the deck of the ship are beautifully intact.

    Dr. Polly Penhale, Environmental Director for the National Science Foundation’s Office of Polar Programs, informed me via e-mail that the wreck of the Endurance is already listed as an ‘Historic Site and Monument’ by the Antarctic Treaty. Remarkably, this protective measure had been ratified by the parties of the Antarctic treaty in anticipation of the famous shipwreck’s discovery. Protections include the ship’s hull and fittings and all items of personal possessions left on the ship by the ship’s company at the time.

    In the bigger picture, the Antarctic Treaty does far more that provide a platform to protect historical artifacts. This one-of-a-kind document ensures that the world’s seventh continent, a land mass the size of China and India combined, is devoid of any militarization or exploitation of mineral and oil resources. Even sovereignty land claims go purposefully unrecognized under the treaty. Antarctica remains a continent for science and peace and poignantly illustrates the advantages of international cooperation and collaboration.

    In reverence to Shackleton’s party whose return to England demarcated the end of the heroic era, and whose collective ordeal of survival has come to symbolize attributes of exemplary leadership, collaboration, and the boundaries of the human condition, the designation of the ship as a perpetual monument is well served. The Endurance will remain intact on the polar seafloor for centuries to come, serving as a reminder that, to endure, nations must work in unity to preserve Antarctica and its hidden treasures.

    Dr. James McClintock is Endowed University Professor of Polar and Marine Biology in the Department of Biology. He recently returned from his 31st trip to Antarctica, 15 of which were expeditions supported by the National Science Foundation.

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  • Two UAB College of Arts and Sciences professors recognized for research efforts by NSF CAREER Awards

    Researchers in UAB’s Departments of Physics and Biology have been awarded distinguished research grants by the National Science Foundation.

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  • Seven students receive 2022 Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate and Graduate Students

    Each academic year, the UAB College of Arts and Sciences receives departmental nominations for the Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate Students and Outstanding Graduate Students.

    Each academic year, the UAB College of Arts and Sciences receives departmental nominations for the Dean’s Awards for Outstanding Undergraduate Students and Outstanding Graduate Students. The dean’s selection committee gives these awards to exceptional undergraduate and graduate students in the College who have made significant contributions to the UAB community.

    After carefully reviewing the 2022 nominations—which include detailed recommendation letters from faculty members and mentors—Dean Kecia M. Thomas, Ph.D., and her committee have selected four undergraduate students and three graduate students for the awards. At the upcoming 2022 commencement ceremonies, the College will acknowledge and celebrate the recipients.

    Congratulations to the following students for receiving this prestigious award:

    2022 Undergraduate Dean’s Awards

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    2022 Graduate Dean’s Awards

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  • How seaweeds can help predict life on a warming planet

    With a CAREER award from the National Science Foundation and innovative genetic techniques, UAB algal expert Stacy Krueger-Hadfield, Ph.D., is uncovering clues to the success of a coastal ecosystem engineer.

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  • 2022 Darwin Day lecture to examine the weapons from the animal world

    The tenth annual Darwin Day lecture will delve into the science behind extreme weapons seen in the animal world, given by an acclaimed expert in animal weaponry.

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  • Art imitating life: How a biology student uses embroidery to learn in her own way

    Laura Calvert, a senior majoring in biomedical sciences, found that embroidering illustrations of plant structures, the glycolysis process and the human digestive system helped her to better grasp the subject matter — all while creating art along the way.

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  • A New Day: Navigating a pandemic and looking to the future

    Arts and Sciences faculty gather to discuss the challenges and opportunities presented by the pandemic.

    From left to right, Shahid Mukhtar, Kecia M. Thomas, Verna Keith, Rich Gere, Lauren Rast, and David Chan. Photo by Nik Layman.There is an ebb and flow to the world that stretches across the centuries. Breakdowns are followed by breakthroughs. Desolation sparks inspiration. Harsh reality is softened by imaginative artistry.  And so, the plague of the 14th century led to the revival of the Renaissance. The flu pandemic of 1918-19 was followed by the Jazz Age of the Roaring Twenties. And the horrors of World War II were replaced by an outpouring of aesthetic creativity and scientific advancement. 

    The world stands at the edge of another historic transition, as we emerge slowly from the COVID-19 pandemic. As difficult as the past 18 months have been (and the immediate future still appears to be), this is not unprecedented territory. There have always been challenging events to endure. And yet, the world somehow has always recovered, usually with a big assist from the arts and sciences. 

    “The humanities are going to be needed when the pandemic is over,” said David Chan, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Philosophy. “One of the things you’re finding nowadays is that people need to find meaning… because it all seems so random. That’s where literature, art, philosophy all come in. They help people cope with change and disasters.” 

    “How do you tell a story about all this so it helps [people] find meaning? These are questions that are being addressed in every branch of the humanities, and that’s where [the College of Arts and Sciences] brings something,” said Chan. 

    Or as Rich Gere, MFA, professor and chair of the Department of Art and Art History, says, “Historically, if you look at resilience within community, after every major disaster, [society] looks to the arts to bring it back. Right after the first responders, the second responders are artists.” 

    It is a daunting task, but one that the College of Arts and Sciences (CAS) is ready to handle. In August 2021, Dean Kecia M. Thomas, brought together five members of the College to discuss the challenges of the previous year, and the opportunities that are on the horizon. 

    Even this roundtable was affected by the ongoing pandemic, as the late-summer surge in COVID-19 cases led to the scheduled in-person gathering being changed to a Zoom meeting. Still, the participants expressed optimism about the future and acknowledged the way CAS has handled things so far.

    From left to right: David Chan, Rich Gere, and Verna Keith

    The past year

    Thomas took over as dean on Aug. 1, 2020. Not only did it mark a dramatic change in her life after spending the previous 27 years at the University of Georgia, but the move occurred in the midst of the pandemic.

    “This has been a really eventful year, and it’s not over,” Thomas said. “I’ve had to learn to give myself a little patience and grace as I’ve learned this new role in this new place in this new city.” 

    Of course, life changed for everybody last year in some way, and the key was to adapt to the situation. For CAS faculty, that included suddenly being required to teach students through remote learning. 

    “We had to learn the technology very quickly,” said Shahid Mukhtar, Ph.D., associate professor in the Department of Biology. “CAS Information Technology helped us tremendously.” 

    “It actually made us better teachers in the classroom, because now we know how we can effectively communicate with our students even when we’re not present in the same place. And when we come back to campus, we can utilize some of those newly acquired skills.” 

    Indeed, the entire interaction between faculty and students has changed since the start of the pandemic. And, in an odd way, being apart actually helped bring both parties closer together. 

    “One of the things that I learned was how to talk to students on a different kind of level,” said Verna Keith, Ph.D., professor and chair of the Department of Sociology. “Since I’m the chair, they’re expecting a certain kind of interaction. But when I had to call them at home and check on them during this pandemic because we hadn’t heard from them, it generated a totally different kind of conversation.” 

    “I realized that the position of chair when you’re in an office creates one kind of dynamic, but when you’re talking with somebody on the phone it created a different dynamic. They saw me in a different light, so we had a different kind of conversation.” 

    This, in turn, created a different kind of relationship. One in which the teachers also depended upon the students for their own grounding. 

    “I realized I get a sense of purpose from helping my students,” said Lauren Rast, Ph.D., assistant professor in the Department of Physics. “Teaching them in ways that help their future and their careers. … It’s vital, not just for them but also for my own ability to maintain resilience.” 

    From left to right: Shahid Mukhtar, Lauren Rast, and Kecia Thomas

    Lessons learned

    One aspect of the Zoom experience that Dean Thomas enjoyed was the opportunity to see students and professional colleagues in a more relaxed atmosphere. 

    “So many people have apologized during Zoom meetings when a toddler or a cat walked through the background,” Thomas said. “But I love it, because we don’t often get the opportunity to remind each other of our humanity. That we are full, whole people beyond these very limited roles that we occupy. … That we have rich lives outside of work. That’s what I’m going to hold onto coming out of this pandemic.” 

    There also were professional positives to emerge from the remote approach. And in time, Gere said many of the early skeptics came to understand and appreciate those benefits. 

    “I had people who self-proclaimed that they are not technology people and can’t teach online,” Gere said. “About halfway through the semester last fall they said, ‘Thank you for forcing me to do this.’ … Some faculty thought it was going to be a train wreck of a semester, but they did really well.” 

    “One of the things I’ve also noticed is that everybody is always on time to a Zoom meeting. Thirty years in academia, I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

    In addition, the acceptance of remote learning has opened up a wider array of guest lecturers. Keith pointed out that it is much easier for somebody to devote 90 minutes of time to talking with a class through a Zoom meeting, as opposed to traveling to Birmingham and speaking in person. 

    “Zoom opened up a lot of avenues, because now we can expose our students to people all over the United States and internationally,” Keith said. “People have been generous about accepting engagements on Zoom. We’ve been able to bring some fairly prominent folks to talk to our students, and that’s probably going to continue.” 

    Despite the heavier reliance on technology, there remained opportunities to inject a human element into the teaching. Rast said she began opening every remote class by simply asking the students if they were doing OK. 

    Students in facemasks paint an outdoor mural at the UAB Solar House.

    “If you can humanize yourself, that helps you to connect,” said Rast. “It helps them to learn, but also to feel supported in the learning environment. I definitely plan to continue that.” 

    Beyond the pandemic

    While the response to COVID-19 dominated 2020, there were other important topics, including issues involving social justice and voting rights.  

    “Certainly, health and the pandemic are the biggest things on everyone’s mind,” Thomas said. “But there are also the issues of race and social justice, and what people are calling ‘the national reckoning.’” 

    “As we think about health, emerging technologies, and how we engage society—this issue of trying to establish an inclusive community and eradicate the injustices and inequities and disparities—how do the arts and sciences fit in with those [topics]? I think there is space for our disciplines to connect to all those areas.” 

    Keith said one element of community engagement already underway in Birmingham is the Live HealthSmart Alabama project, which was the winner of the inaugural UAB Grand Challenge. The goal of the project is to dramatically improve the state of Alabama’s health rankings by the year 2030. 

    Initially, the project consists of four demonstration communities, including one on the UAB campus. The UAB Minority Health & Health Disparities Research Center will work with the communities to promote nutrition, physical activity, and preventive wellness. 

    “This offers a lot of opportunities for different aspects of CAS to be involved,” Keith said. “Some of us are involved in the research side, but you can also be involved as a faculty member or a student. This is one of those things where we can build community engagement into our classes and also involve students in this worthwhile project.” 

    As for the overall social issues, Chan said the pandemic put a spotlight on the ways injustices and inequalities affect communities, providing relevant cases that can be used in coursework. 

    “One of my colleagues teaches a class in Family and Philosophy. She deals with issues about families and raising children,” Chan said. “We have students who are working mothers, and they can have problems taking classes. She found that the pandemic gave her examples she could use in class that students could relate to, because they were actually experiencing that in their lives.” 

    Career development and more

    While one of the primary purposes of higher education is to prepare students for a career, it also is a place where students learn about life itself.  

    “I do believe, of course, that our students should be prepared to pursue a career when they graduate. But I also think that our mission is a little bit broader, and we need to serve the whole person,” Thomas said.  

    The answer, once again, could involve community engagement. Mukhtar said he would like to see even more programs and workshops that showcase the engagement opportunities CAS has to offer, in order to help students determine the career path that might be best for them. 

    “Some kids are first-generation college students. Who can guide them? Where is the information? What are their (career) paths?” Mukhtar said. “We need ... to educate students from the ground up.” 

    One area of opportunity is in the field of data management. According to analysis by the Birmingham Business Alliance, data scientist jobs in the Birmingham region have increased by more than 45 percent over the past five years, and these positions on average pay 65 percent more (approximately $26,000 more annually) than jobs not requiring analysis skills. UAB is engaging in this growing field through the Magic City Data Collective, a partnership with the Birmingham Business Alliance and the Birmingham Education Foundation, with funding help through a grant from the Michael & Susan Dell Foundation. The goal is to bring local students, researchers, and data experts together to work on projects, enabling students to improve their analytics and computational skills. 

    “We recruited a really diverse student population, and in an interdisciplinary hands-on way these students were empowered to come up with results that were relevant to the city of Birmingham and will help make data-driven decisions for our community,” said Rast, who serves as the learning manager for the project. “When we have this information and locals are able to use data to make decisions and impact their community, that’s a positive thing we can do at the College of Arts and Sciences. It was my favorite thing that I’ve done all year.” 

    Looking ahead

    Dean Thomas wrapped up the hour-long discussion by asking each participant for a parting thought. Their messages indicated that despite all the difficulties of the past 18 months (and counting), their outlook remains optimistic, propelled in part by the determination of CAS and UAB as a whole to work together for a better future.  

    CHAN: “My message would be to build connections while you’re here, and stay connected after you leave. See what you can build here and then continue the relationships. This isn’t just some phase in a life—it is something that will be with you all your life.” 

    RAST: “I’d love to engage with my fellow UAB faculty and staff and students across disciplines in ways that break silos. Because of the diversity of our UAB community and our background interests, there is a lot of opportunity for creativity and ideas that benefit our community.” 

    MUKHTAR: “We are a UAB family. And one of the things we learned during this pandemic is that life is so fragile. Today we are together and the next day we are not. We’ve known this, but when you see it firsthand, then you really feel it and it touches you deeply inside. Today at the College of Arts and Sciences, we are closer to each other than we were two years ago. That affects all of us… So my message would be just to be together as a UAB family and be more productive as a member of the family.” 

    KEITH: “I’d like to give a shout-out to the entire faculty in CAS… Our faculty are the people who are creative, who make discoveries, who produce knowledge. Rather than just being people who pass knowledge on, they are doing that work themselves. So students who come to UAB are lucky that they’re exposed to that. It’s something that will last them for a lifetime.”

    GERE: “I’d like to speak on behalf of my colleagues in theatre and dance and music. Because the last 18 months have been a reminder that the arts help pull everybody together… These are great and strong programs, and they attract top-notch students from Alabama and beyond.”

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