Sweet Briar professor wins VMNH Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education

Posted on December 16, 2016 by Janika Carey

The Butterfly Garden is a great resource — and living laboratory — for Linda Fink’s biology classes. The Butterfly Garden is a great resource — and living laboratory — for Linda Fink’s biology classes.

The Virginia Museum of Natural History has named Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology Linda Fink the recipient of its Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education. Fink will accept the honor at the 30th annual Thomas Jefferson Awards ceremony on Thursday, March 16, 2017. The event will take place from 6 to 7:15 p.m. at the museum in Martinsville.

The VMNH Foundation Thomas Jefferson Awards ceremony is a statewide event that honors individuals, companies and organizations for outstanding contributions to natural science and natural science education in Virginia.

According to a VMNH news release, the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education is presented to a Virginia educator who has made significant contributions to natural science education at any academic level.

The museum praised Fink for her “illustrious career of over twenty-five years at Sweet Briar College, where she has dedicated her time inspiring her students with creative and original teaching perspectives that instill curiosity and appreciation for the natural world.

Prof. Linda Fink has taught at Sweet Briar College for 25 years. Prof. Fink has taught at Sweet Briar College for more than 25 years.

“Through unique perspectives,” the release continues, “including incorporating the arts and natural history filmmaking, as well as prioritizing a teaching style that emphasizes field study and interactive participation over lecture-based teaching, Dr. Fink has dedicated her career to the advancement of natural history education.”

Fink was “delighted” to accept the honor.

“As a field biologist at a liberal arts college on 3,250 rural acres, I have one of the best jobs in Virginia: to encourage young people to care about the natural world,” she said. “I spend rainy March nights counting salamanders, and breezy September afternoons catching monarch butterflies. My students’ work includes sketches of bursting buds and detailed maps of beaver activity. How am I so lucky?”

Janet Steven, a biologist at Christopher Newport University and a faculty member at Sweet Briar from 2005 to 2014, knows how, and it’s one of many reasons she nominated her former colleague for the award.

“Linda’s success as a teacher of natural history … comes from her own unbridled enthusiasm and her willingness to go the extra mile in creating an effective lesson,” Steven wrote. “Linda can motivate any learner to look more closely, to explore, and to gain appreciation and wonder for their subject.”

Additional letters of support came from other colleagues, former students and community naturalists.

Fink earned her Ph.D. in zoology from the University of Florida and has taught biology at Sweet Briar since 1990. In addition to Field Natural History, she teaches courses in ecology, animal behavior, conservation and insect biology. She mentors students doing research in the College’s hardwood forests, open fields and freshwater habitats on topics as varied as the spread of invasive plants, the winter ecology of insects and the population biology of spotted salamanders.

But her teaching has always stretched beyond the biology department. The study of natural history, Fink says, has a “natural linkage” with creative writing and the arts, so in the early 1990s, Fink team-taught a Nature Journals course with studio art professor Laura Pharis.

When Sweet Briar eliminated its January term, the duo wasn’t able to continue teaching the course, but kept looking for opportunities to collaborate. In spring 2014, biology and art students joined forces to produce a book about the breeding of spotted salamanders on campus, “The Secret Life of Sweet Briar’s Salamanders.”

This year, Fink is serving as the entomological consultant to a music student on a performance piece based on Newberry Medalist Paul Fleischmann’s poems about insects, “Joyful Noise.”

“I will continue to find ways to intertwine the arts and natural history,” Fink said.

Linda Fink in class Fink works with Sweet Briar students during a class.

A “natural historian at heart,” as Steven described her, Fink also enjoys giving talks and presentations to garden cubs, libraries and anyone who is interested. She frequently leads nature walks around campus and has taught the insect unit for the Rivanna Master Naturalists since 2013, as well as given workshops in other Master Naturalist chapters since 2008. Other groups that have benefited from her expertise include Nature Camp, the Charlottesville Area Tree Stewards, the Rockfish Valley Foundation Natural History Center and Wintergreen Nature Foundation.

In collaboration with her husband, research professor and internationally renowned monarch expert Lincoln Brower, Fink also publishes research on the ecology, physiology and conservation of monarch butterflies.

Other 2017 VMNH awards included the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science (Patricia M. Dove, University Distinguished Professor and C.P. Miles Professor of Science, Department of Geosciences, Virginia Tech), the William Barton Rogers Corporate Award (Smithsonian’s National Museum of Natural History), the William Barton Rogers Individual Award (Hermes Family Foundation) and the Matthew Fontaine Maury Distinguished Service Award (editors of “The Geology of Virginia”).

To learn more about the awards ceremony or to purchase tickets, visit www.vmnh.net or call (276) 634-4162.

The Virginia Museum of Natural History in Martinsville seeks to increase understanding of and appreciation for the natural history of the Commonwealth through education, research, collections, publications and exhibits. An affiliate of the Smithsonian Institution, the VMNH is accredited by the American Association of Museums. The museum is a member of the Association of Science-Technology Centers, Virginia Association of Museums, Heritage Preservation, and is an agency of the Secretary of Natural Resources for the Commonwealth of Virginia.