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Grace Spatafora (center), the Heinz-Given Professor of Pre-medical Sciences, received the 2017 Perkins Award for teaching excellence in math and sciences. Catherine Harris (left), granddaughter of Professor Llewellyn R. Perkins and Dr. Ruth M.H. Perkins, presented the award. Professor Steve Trombulak (right) is director of sciences at Middlebury.

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College Presents Perkins Award for Teaching to Biologist Grace Spatafora

May 3, 2017

MIDDLEBURY, Vt. – Middlebury College has awarded the 2017 Perkins Award for Excellence in Teaching to Grace Spatafora, a professor of biology whose research focuses on a better understanding of how
Streptococcus mutans, an oral pathogen, causes tooth decay. The Perkins Award is given annually to a member of the Middlebury College Natural Sciences division, alternating each year between mathematics and other departments in the sciences, and honors outstanding performance as a teacher. 

In nominating her for the award, one student wrote: “Dr. Spatafora’s teaching excellence goes beyond her success in the classroom and in the laboratory. She strives to make her students part of the greater scientific community.”

Often described as tough but fair, “Spatafora champions the idea of independent student research,” said another student. “She is available when we need her, and she treats her students almost like graduate students, which is vital in our preparation for the work force. We are not technicians but rather researchers.”

Students often mention Spatafora’s own strong work ethic and how she will always serve as a role model. They cite her support as they present the research they conducted in her lab at national and international conferences, amongst PhD candidates and post docs. They call her courses some of the best they’ve taken at Middlebury.

Students also appreciate her sense of humor. “I will never forget her miming how a kinesin protein walks with a limp,” said one.

“Engaging my students in scientific research in the teaching and research labs is what I like most about my work,” said Spatafora, the Heinz-Given Professor of the Pre-medical Sciences, “as well as providing them with information that can make a difference in the way they view the world.”

“It means everything to me to have been selected as this year’s Perkins awardee, especially since the recipient is determined by the students,” she added.

The Middlebury community honored her at an award ceremony and reception on May 2 at 4:30 p.m. in Room 104 of McCardell Bicentennial Hall.

Spatafora has been a professor at Middlebury since 2004. She joined the faculty in 1992 as a visiting assistant professor. The courses she teaches include Immunology, Microbiology, and Molecular Genetics. Before coming to Middlebury, she earned her undergraduate degree at Duke University and her doctorate at St. Louis University. She completed post-doctoral studies at Washington University in St. Louis and the University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Spatafora’s current research is supported by a $1.6 million grant from the NIH/NIDCR (National Institutes of Health/National Institute of Dental and Craniofacial Research). Since the 1990s, she has repeatedly applied for and received competitive grants from this government agency.

Spatafora has received various professional honors and has spoken at numerous conferences over the course of her 25-year career at the College. She is a member of the board of the Vermont Academy of Sciences and Engineering and also serves on the editorial board for the Molecular Oral Microbiology journal.  

The Perkins Award is provided by the Professor Llewellyn R. Perkins and Dr. Ruth M.H. Perkins Memorial Research Fund, and it was made possible by a gift from Ruth Perkins, Middlebury Class of 1932, in memory of her husband, Llewellyn, who taught at Middlebury from 1914 through 1941. Professor Perkins founded and chaired the mathematics department.

Their children, Marion Perkins Harris ’57, a science teacher, and David Perkins, a physician, augmented the fund and expanded the scope of the award to honor their mother, Ruth, as well as their father. The award supports the recipient’s faculty development. It is presented in even-numbered years to a member of the mathematics or computer science department, and in odd-numbered years to a faculty member who teaches in the natural sciences.

– With reporting by Sarah Ray and photography by Robert Keren