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Faculty and Friends Bid Dr. Spiller Farewell

Susan Spiller (bottow row, in the center) in a photo with her research students after winning a mentorship award. (Image courtesy of Susan Spiller)
Susan Spiller (bottow row, in the center) in a photo with her research students after winning a mentorship award. (Image courtesy of Susan Spiller)

Dear Susan –

I hope you are by now very well aware of how much I appreciate your generosity in sharing the molecular biological instruments that you have bought with your research grants. We have been able to do more advanced experiments in classes because of their availability, and there is no way our teensy departmental budget would support our buying such treasures. When I think of my interactions with you at Mills, though, probably the most fun memory is when you helped to make it possible, at the very last minute, for us to have those four excellent pieces of “biology art” that now hang in the Natural Sciences Building. I had seen those huge prints at the American Society for Cell Biology meeting at the Moscone Center; they were on silent auction, with proceeds to support the “Art in Cell Biology” group. I so wished I had the time to convince my colleagues in the biology department to contribute to buying the prints for our building, but the auction was ending the next morning, and I would be at Mills grading finals. Alas, it was not to be.

I had to tell someone about the images, however. While Lisa Urry and I, with our TAs, were working on grading, I told Lisa about the prints, and about my regret that I did not have time to rally the troops to buy them. I showed Lisa the picture I had taken of the display.

“Let’s make this a collaboration,” she said. “You found them, and I’ll buy them for the department!”

But by then, it seemed it was too late. The auction was ending in 20 minutes – in San Francisco – and we were in East Oakland. But wait… I remembered you were attending the ASCB meeting too. We had run into each other a couple of times amidst that crowd of 8,000. If you were still there that morning, Lisa and I were sure you would be happy to help out. Luckily for everyone, you were still there. I actually found your cell phone number, you managed to hear your cell phone in the din of the meeting crowds, and you answered it!

While I frantically explained the situation, you quickly made your way to the auction site. I talked you through which images we wanted to bid on, and you placed the bids with about 5 minutes to spare. We won them all! Then you had to negotiate how to get them onto Lisa’s credit card and, not at all trivially, how to get them home! The prints are really huge, and were sold “as is” – notably, with no mailing tubes provided. I still have no idea how you managed to transport them all in such good shape.

But without you, and your willingness to play an unexpected part in this last-minute tag team, NSB would not have these wonderful images. This instant “pick-up” collaboration was certainly one of the most memorable moments of the past several years for both Lisa and me. We will always think of you with a smile when we see that art work.

Thank you!
Best, always –
Barbara Bowman

By Dr. Jared Young:

Dr. Spiller’s contributions to Mills are numerous and significant. I am sure many will speak of her work as a teacher, as a champion for sustainability and women in science, and as an open-minded and creative contributor to the campus. I would particularly like to thank Dr. Spiller for her role as a vigorous and highly successful leader in laboratory research at Mills.

Dr. Spiller engaged in extraordinary and ambitious work for an undergraduate biology lab. A savvy professional, she established a critical collaboration with the Center for Biophotonics at UC Davis. This enabled her and her students to carry out truly cutting edge biochemical research on novel fluorescent proteins both at Mills and at UC Davis. Her students gained deep exposure to their field, working with scientists at other institutions, and presenting at conferences across the country and the world. Always pushing boundaries, Dr. Spiller used her research program as a platform to do outreach with labs and educators in Peru, and right here in Oakland at Castlemont High School. Both of these were significant efforts with broad impact. Susan provided engaging projects for our Jill Barrett Biology Summer Research fellows that exposed them to high level science and a wealth of diverse experiences.

What Dr. Spiller did with and for our Mills students in her research program is quite remarkable. Congratulations to Susan for a job well done and many thanks or all the lives you affected.

Dear Susan,

When I stepped into the classroom seven years ago, I didn’t know what to expect. It was my first college teaching experience, and I didn’t know what I was doing. Thankfully, I had you to guide me through my early years here at Mills. You showed me the ropes, demonstrating your calm, yet purposeful way of working with students in the classroom and helping me through the administrative aspects of running a course.

It has been a real pleasure teaching the general biology labs with you these past several years. I appreciate that you have always respected and honored my viewpoints about running the labs. I know that we haven’t always agreed on how to do things, but I feel that the subsequent discussion has helped me grow as an instructor and has resulted in a better course for the students. It’s really been wonderful and exciting working with you to find ways to incorporate new ideas into the curriculum.

Working with you has helped me gain greater confidence as an instructor.

Our ongoing discussions about how to run the course have helped me to hone my course-planning skills, and I now feel comfortable carrying the torch after your retirement. Observing your teaching style has encouraged me to constantly re-evaluate my own, and I feel that the resulting adjustments have made me a better teacher.

Your involvement here at Mills will be sorely missed. Your plant biology expertise has been a superb complement to my molecular knowledge in teaching general biology, and it has been an invaluable resource to me as I try to learn more about topics outside of my area of expertise. Your research has been among the most successful in our department, and has provided so many opportunities for students to acquire cutting-edge research experience in preparation for future careers. A hearty congratulations on your retirement. Thank you for all you’ve done for me, and thanks on behalf of the department and the students. I wish you the best in your future endeavors, and will always hold you close to my heart.

Elaine Tan

Read The Campanil‘s article about Dr. Susan Spiller’s retirement after 25 years at Mills.

This post was published in The Campanil‘s special Commencement issue which came out on Tuesday, May 6. For more graduation-related posts, check out The Campanil‘s designated 2014 Commencement webpage here or click on the “Commencement” link in the upper right hand corner of the header.