Pepperdine People Magazine
Pepperdine People Magazine Spring 2008
Inquisitive by Nature
Celebrated Professor Blends Exemplary Teaching with New Scientific Research
by Molly Drobnick
As a student of biology at Pepperdine University, Stephanie Fabritius wanted to research how a mother bird instinctively knows when she should sit on her eggs to warm them. Curious about the answer to this question, Fabritius and her instructor enlisted the help of Stephen Davis, Distinguished Professor of Biology.
Turning to their custom-designed equipment, the team placed a heating and cooling device below the nest to control egg temperature independent of air temperature. As the egg temperature in the nest decreased, the mother bird instinctively sat on her eggs for more time to compensate. When they artificially warmed the eggs, the mother bird reduced her sitting time. The researchers made an important discovery that day proving that the temperature of the eggs—not the surrounding air temperature, as scientists previously thought—determined the mother bird's behavior.
Today Fabritius is a successful bird behavior ecologist and serves as the vice president of academic affairs and dean of Centre College. She fondly recalls that breakthrough discovery with Davis. "I loved biology but had this sense that it was a static thing. Steve Davis opened the gate for me and I came to understand that doing research meant actually being an author of knowledge and challenging ideas," says Fabritius.
For Davis, nationally acclaimed biologist and educator, the pursuit of knowledge also began with a natural inquisitiveness. Born to a family who made a living by commercial fishing and farming their land, as a child Davis remembers being fascinated by nature and all that surrounded him. He recalls spending a long day aboard his father's boat stacking the day's catch in the storage room. In the darkness of the room, he saw to his surprise thousands of glowing fish eyes staring at him and wondered what made them emanate light. Upon investigation he learned the reason for the glow was a process called bioluminescence caused by a type of bacterium found in the ocean. From the very beginning Davis was intrigued by his environment.
Raised with strong Christian roots, Davis attended Pacific Christian Academy, which his grandfather cofounded in his hometown of Graton, California. Davis was the first person to attend to college in his family and knew he wanted to do things a bit differently. Uncertain about his life's course, he attended what is now Cascade College in Portland, Oregon, and earned an associate of arts degree. Sharpening his focus, Davis went on to earn his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from Abilene Christian University, and later received his Ph.D. in biology from Texas A&M.
During his undergraduate studies, Davis was assigned to instruct a botany lab and at that critical juncture knew he wanted to teach. "I enjoyed learning more in depth and interacting with students," says Davis. "There was a real need in the biological sciences for quality educators. I liked the Christian college setting, where the emphasis is on excellence and religious aspects are incorporated with strong academics."
A devout member of Churches of Christ and the product of a Christian education, Davis was aware of Pepperdine's solid academic reputation and Christian foundation. "I thought of George Pepperdine as a hero, as someone who founded a college with great foresight and knowledge. I saw the value in that," he comments. In 1974 Davis joined the Pepperdine faculty.
Until that time he had never been trained in plant ecology. "I was determined to excite my students by engaging them in the study of something local, significant, and most importantly, something in their backyard," says Davis. In 2002 he wrote a grant proposal to the National Science Foundation and was awarded Pepperdine's largest-ever National Science Foundation grant: a three-year, $300,000 award to learn about drought tolerance in chaparral scrub (an indigenous vegetation type), enabling students to participate on the highest levels. That same year he was honored as Pepperdine Professor of the Year.
Much of Davis' research centers on plant physiological ecology or the ability of plants to adapt to fire, freezing, and drought. He and many of his classes focus on native Southern California chaparral and coastal sage vegetation, both of which can be found in the natural landscape of Pepperdine's Malibu campus.
Boasting dozens of notable career achievements, Davis recently earned one of the most prestigious. He was named by Baylor University as the 2008 recipient of the Robert Foster Cherry Award for Great Teaching. The famed award is the only national teaching award presented by a college or university to an individual for exceptional teaching. It also comes with the single largest monetary reward: $200,000. Additionally, Davis' home department at Pepperdine receives $25,000.
From his experience as a professor over the years, Davis has learned that in order to be an exemplary teacher in his field, he will forever remain a student. "I'm growing right with you," he says to his students, "learning from nature and the patterns of nature. I always save a place for myself in the laboratory."
Davis believes there is an interdependence between new research discoveries and fresh ideas coming from his students. "When you engage and facilitate students, they bring an element of new knowledge and perspective." Throughout his tenure at Pepperdine, Davis has coauthored numerous peer-reviewed articles in scientific journals with his students. "I capitalize on the energy, enthusiasm, and sometimes, very basic questions that the students pose to complement the resources of my lab and the support of the University."
These basic student questions have led to intriguing scientific discoveries like Fabritius'. Years ago, Davis' student Diane Pratt took on a challenging new project on nodules. The small tumorous-like growths, found on the roots of chaparral seedlings, enable the plant's nitrogen absorption—a necessary element of plant survival.
After a fire, Pratt and Davis took to the Malibu hillsides to find nodules on seedlings that had sprouted as a result of a recent blaze. Many native plant seeds do not germinate unless they are exposed to the intense heat of a wildfire. The two researchers unearthed the seedlings and were surprised not to find any nodules. Pursuing another idea, they sought out seedlings in moist soil near a stream and there they discovered nodules.
Pratt and Davis determined that the first observed seedling group had not developed nodules because of a recent drought. The second observed group had, however, because the seedlings were irrigated by the nearby water source. This first-time research discovery was published in two journal articles.
These days Davis can be spotted still trekking around the campus hills and nearby Malibu Bluffs Park studying plants with his students. "Evidence suggests that climate change is already having a profound impact in Southern California causing drought conditions and more frequent fires," says Davis. Through his and his students' diligent research and observations, "the objective is to better understand the system so we can better preserve, conserve, and wisely manage our natural resources." With Davis at the helm, collaborative efforts and exploration of new territory continues to bring fresh research to light.