Where science and history converge

Published: June 24th, 2008

Category: Spotlights

Betty Smocovitis

Betty Smocovitis

Professor of Zoology and History
College of Liberal Arts and Sciences

When The Scientist magazine recently ranked the University of Florida among the best places for scientists to work in academia, it wasn’t a surprise to Betty Smocovitis, a professor in the departments of zoology and history in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences. “I didn’t need to read that survey to know that biologists at UF were some of the happiest in the country. I knew that from about my second semester here, way back in 1989!”

Smocovitis studies the history, philosophy and social study of the 20th-century biological sciences, especially evolutionary biology, systematics, ecology and genetics. She also explores the history of the botanical sciences in America and says her parents are responsible for sparking her interest in history and science. “I was born in Egypt, and my parents are from Greece. I was always aware of the past as a result of growing up between those two countries with a richly developed history, or the ‘Pyramid to Parthenon Experience’ as I like to call it.”

Smocovitis’ father trained in astronomy and physics at the University of Athens and became a professor of general science at a school in Egypt. “He had a laboratory where he taught, and somewhere in between the skeleton he literally kept in the closet, the plastic heart on his desk, and the metal balls demonstrating kinetic energy that he loved to talk about, I developed an interest in science. He also told me stories about the Great Library at Alexandria, which fascinated me even as a small child. So, I feel like I’ve always had an awareness of both history and science.”

Unaware until graduate school that one could merge the two fields and have a career studying the history of science, Smocovitis enrolled at Cornell University in the Program for the History and Philosophy of Science and Technology. Much of her research concentrates on gaining a better understanding of the evolutionary synthesis, which saw the establishment of the modern theory of evolution. To that end, her first book, “Unifying Biology: The Evolutionary Synthesis and Evolutionary Biology” explores that topic. She currently is completing a book-length project that is a biography of the botanical architect of evolutionary synthesis G. Ledyard Stebbins.

“Discovering the field of the history of science has allowed me to integrate a broad range of my intellectual interests as well as my personal predilections,” explains Smocovitis. “By concentrating on the science of evolution, I think I’ve been able to bring all my interests together rather nicely since it happens to be historical science with wide-ranging humanistic elements.”

Smocovitis earned her bachelor’s degree in biology from the University of Western Ontario and her Ph.D. in ecology and evolutionary biology from Cornell in 1988. She has received UF and CLAS Teaching Awards and is a Fellow of the American Association for the Advancement of Science. She also is a member of the Society for the Study of Evolution, the Botanical Society of America and the History of Science Society, which has its executive office headquartered at the University of Florida. Smocovitis has received research grants from the National Science Foundation, theAmerican Philosophical Society and the National Endowment for the Humanities.

“The sheer size of UF, and the emphasis on natural history that enables a broad range of academic fields in the biological sciences, is the best part about teaching and researching here,” Smocovitis says. “Where else can you find such strong departments of zoology and botany alongside a spectacular museum of natural history, a medical school and an agricultural college all in one place that also happens to be a naturalist’s dream?”

Photo credit: Ray Carson – University Photography

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