Champion of nature retires from Sweet Briar

Professor Fink with ecology students in 2019.
Professor Fink with ecology students in 2019.
Professor Fink with ecology students in 2019.

Professor Linda Fink is honored by the College community after 33 years of service. 

Posted on August 01, 2023 by Sandra Huffman

Baby chameleons, tobacco hornworms, spotted salamanders, and bugs from her own pond were regular visitors in the teaching lab of Linda Fink, the Dorys McConnell Duberg Professor of Ecology. In June 2023, Fink retired from the faculty of Sweet Briar College after 33 years of exemplary service.

Over the years, she has been called a distinguished colleague, highly esteemed educator, dedicated student advisor, and consummate professional who brought significant distinction to herself and Sweet Briar. In April, the Board of Directors of the College approved a Resolution in recognition and appreciation of Fink’s sustained commitment, exceptional leadership, inspiring vision, and heroic service to the College. 

Courses she taught included Introduction to Organisms, Animal Behavior, Ecology, Field Natural History, Conservation Biology, Insect Biology, Evolution, and Sustainable Systems (Core 140). Fink and her students spent hours exploring the fauna and flora of the Sweet Briar campus as she encouraged students to become “curious naturalists” and she said one of her favorite parts of working at Sweet Briar was mentoring over seventy students in research.

“Many of our projects would arise because in a class project, we saw something and said we can extend it. Projects tended to come out of direct observations, rather than ‘let’s test a theory,’ or ‘let’s follow up on somebody else’s idea,’” she explained.

Her students asked things like:

  • How long does it take a stink bug to replenish its stink gland?
  • Could we find a signature from 1954’s Hurricane Hazel in the tree rings of campus oaks?
  • Does invasive stiltgrass affect earthworm abundance and diversity? And, 
  • Can people transfer insecticide residues from pets to non-target insects?

Siena Hasbrouck ’16 wrote, “Studying under Dr. Fink, I was no longer allowed to say, ‘that’s a pretty bird.’ I had to learn its scientific name, predators, mating calls, alarm calls, and diet. I had to watch the way it flew and the way it interacted with other birds.”

Teresa Garrett and Linda Fink at faculty meeting May 2023 Dean Teresa Garrett presented a Board resolution to Linda Fink at the May 10, 2023, faculty meeting.Mona Browning, technical assistant in the biology department, provided examples of the supplies Fink requested for her labs or for student research, including tractor funnels, wading pools, a turkey baster, cinnamon, tent stakes, plastic shoe boxes, gladiolas, pinto beans, and chunky dog food. Browning said, “Sometimes I would wonder what in the world she was going to do with the supplies she needed. After a lab, it would sometimes be a mess to clean up and put away, but as a parent, I appreciated the hands-on learning evident in Linda’s labs.”

Fink’s husband, Lincoln Brower, was the world expert on monarch butterflies. When Brower retired from the Department of Zoology at the University of Florida in 1997, he joined Fink at Sweet Briar, where he held the position of research professor of biology. He continued conducting monarch research and conservation, supervised research students, and took part in the biology department until his death in 2018.

One collaboration Fink and Brower especially enjoyed was offering their expertise on monarch butterflies to author Barbara Kingsolver for her 2012 novel Flight Behavior. In the book’s Author’s Note, Kingsolver thanked Brower and Fink “for graciously opening their home, laboratories, research records, and most impressively, their imaginations.” Building on this relationship, Kingsolver presented at Sweet Briar’s 2013 Julia B. Waxter Environmental Forum, the annual lecture series focusing on environmental concerns.

Fink began her service on the faculty of Sweet Briar College in 1990, having received a B.A. summa cum laude from Amherst College, and masters and doctorate degrees from the University of Florida.

In addition to working with students during her years at Sweet Briar, she was the Department of Biology Chair, Department of Environmental Science Chair, and Center for Human and Environmental Sustainability Director. In 2016, Sweet Briar’s Student Government Association presented her with the Excellence in Teaching Award and, in 2017, the Virginia Museum of Natural History awarded her the Thomas Jefferson Medal for Outstanding Contributions to Natural Science Education.

Fink used her ecological knowledge to contribute to decisions about managing the college’s natural areas. Over the years she served on campus land use and landscaping committees, and the Board’s buildings and grounds committee. With emeritus professor Ernest P. Edwards, Fink successfully petitioned the Board to establish Constitution Oaks Sanctuary. In 2001, she led an unsuccessful effort to prevent a round of logging of Sweet Briar’s forests; an outcome of the debate was expansion of Constitution Oaks Sanctuary and establishment of COSIP Sanctuary.

Laura Pharis, Professor of Visual Arts, said, “Linda and I came to Sweet Briar the same year and were next-door neighbors on Woodland Road. We became and remain good friends, as did our families and dogs. A couple of times, Linda and I team-taught a course called Nature Journals, which Linda subtitled ‘The Collision of Science and Art.’ She is brilliant and honest, and has been a wonderful, generous friend and valued colleague throughout all these years.”

Following the failed closure attempt of the College in 2015, Fink served as Chair of the Faculty Executive Committee for two years, working closely with the president, the Board, and her colleagues to restore and renew the College’s academic programs, recruit students, and recruit and hire faculty. She contributed to redesigning the general education program into the Leadership Core and served as Chair of the Quality Enhancement Plan Ad hoc Committee, an integral aspect of the College’s ten-year reaccreditation by the Southern Association of Colleges and Schools Commission on Colleges.

John Gregory Brown, the Julia Jackson Nichols Professor of English, said, “Linda has not only been a beloved professor and colleague throughout her years at Sweet Briar, she has also been Sweet Briar’s great steward — of the campus’s natural beauty and ecological diversity, yes, but more importantly, of the college itself. Linda worked tirelessly with fellow faculty members to help save Sweet Briar from closure and then spearheaded the faculty’s efforts to rebuild the academic program. Linda is one of the reasons the college is still open, still educating young women, and every alumna and friend of the college should thank her for the great work she has done.”

In a speech to her colleagues at the last faculty meeting of the year, Fink talked about being a “lifer”—a group of faculty and staff who have spent many years at the College. “It’s important that after 2015, at least a few of us stuck it out and helped keep the place going. I was able to be one of those people and I’m proud of helping to keep the place open,” she said.

Assistant Professor of Biology Kala Bonner highlighted how Linda shows investment not only in her students but also in her colleagues. Bonner said, “When I first came to Sweet Briar, I was so thankful to have her in my corner. Linda went out of her way to ensure that my transition was smooth and full of success.”

Lili Lei, Assistant Professor of Biology and Environmental Science, agreed. “She was with me when I first came to my office, which was next to her office. She was the person who sat down with me to talk about the first couple of classes I taught here. She was with me for many firsts here and I am always grateful to her since I know she is always here for me when I need her,”said Lei. Professor Fink at Commencement 2023. Professor Fink at Commencement 2023.

Now that she is retired, Fink looks forward to exploring new things. She recently began tutoring adults in ESL and said this is one way she will continue to build individual student-teacher relationships. Another thing she will try is dog agility training with her new puppy Niko, named after the famous animal behavior scientist Niko Tinbergen, who titled one of his books “Curious Naturalists”. It also may surprise biology alumnae, who remember Fink and Brower’s succession of nine German shepherds from Rosie to Leo, to learn that Niko is a Danish-Swedish Farmdog.

Along with missing her colleagues, Fink said she will miss the daily interactions with the students—watching them go through four years and then staying in touch after graduation. “I love hearing from my alumnae, and hope they’ll continue to share news about their families, pets, gardens, careers and adventures.”

While Fink will no longer teach in the classroom, she will continue to work with students in Sweet Briar’s apiary. She’s been a part of the apiary since it started in 2018 and enjoys working with master beekeeper Brooke Savage. Fink said, “As long as she keeps taking care of our bees, I’ll work as her assistant.” Students work with Fink and Savage in the Agricultural Operations class, and as part of the Willits Summer Food Systems fellowship.

Professor Bonner said it best when she expressed her thoughts at Linda’s retirement. She said, “We at Sweet Briar were so lucky to have her here and if we’re being honest, we are sad to see her go, but Linda has done an excellent job and it is time for her to embark on a new journey. I know she will successfully tackle anything she puts her mind to. So, cheers to you Linda, thank you for all that you are, and all that you have done.”