Meet the National Professor of the Year

Meet the National Professor of the Year

Being national professor of the year is a momentous honor. But for Donna Boyd (Knoxville ’81, ’84, ’88), the award has added significance. She’s a “second generation” professor of the year, having studied under a UT anthropology professor who won the honor in 1985.

“This is the same award that was won by UT’s famous Dr. William Bass,” says Boyd, a professor at Radford University in Virginia. “This represents one of the very few times this national award has been won by a professor and then, a generation later, his student. Dr. Bass was not my major professor, but I worked as his teaching assistant.”

Boyd is a native of Johnson City, Tennessee. Her husband, Cliff Boyd, is a UT anthropology graduate (Knoxville ’82, ’86) as well, and is also on the Radford faculty.

The Boyds go back much further than UT: they have known each other virtually all their lives. When Donna came to UT, she was undecided about her major. Cliff already had earned a bachelor’s degree in sociology and art and spent 2 years in Colombia with the Peace Corps. He had enrolled at UT to get his master’s in anthropology and worked excavating Native American burials in East and Middle Tennessee. His enthusiasm for archaeology caused Donna to take an introductory anthropology class, followed by a course in human osteology (bones). She was hooked, and her career course was set. The couple married before Cliff graduated and endured a “commuter marriage” after he went to teach at Radford.

“It was a surprise when another position came open [at Radford] and I got it,” she says.

The Boyds, who’ve been married 26 years and have three children, are an anthropological team: “He does archaeology, such as excavation and pottery; I do physical anthropology–bones. We do a lot of research projects together. Personally we love it.” But professionally, it brings some challenges, she says. Neither can advance to department head, because one can’t work directly for the other. “But neither of us wants to be department head, so that’s just fine,” she laughs.

The Boyds have done research on Native American and post-Civil War bones. Donna Boyd says she would like to do more historical analysis, as well as expand her research in forensics.

Boyd recalls UT anthropology professors Gerald Schroedl and Richard Jantz as some of her faculty favorites, as well as Fred Smith, her advisor and chair of her doctoral committee, who has since left UT.

The professor of the year award is given by the Council for Advancement and Support of Education and the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching.

Boyd has been at Radford for 17 years. She has been lauded for her personal touch with students and for hands-on experience she gives them, like involving her most advanced classes in criminal investigations.

“Radford focuses on teaching, but you can integrate research with teaching and that makes you a better teacher. I involve my students in my cases. It’s rare that undergraduates have that opportunity. It’s real–not busy work. It’s relevant and hands-on.”

In her senior-level course, she gives each student a box of bones at the beginning of the semester. “I tell them that by the end of the semester they’ll know whether this was a male or female, the age, ancestry, and whether the person had any diseases.

“They don’t believe me. But by the end of the semester, they’ve discovered all that.”

Boyd is an adjunct staff member of the office of the Medical Examiner of Virginia. She assists with investigations of homicide cases when skeletal remains are involved.

“They call me to help identify remains,” she says. “Also, the local authorities will show up or call me to a crime scene. My husband helps; he’s good with research and recovery.”

She recounts a “success story” from her forensic field experience: “A couple of years ago in Albemarle County, an older lady was presumed dead when a propane tank ignited and burned her house trailer. It was a very intense fire, and the fire officials couldn’t find any trace of her when it was over. But her family was sure she was at home at the time. My husband and I took our team to the scene, and we found enough small pieces [of bone] so that a death certificate could be issued and the family could reach some kind of closure.”

Boyd also recently received a Virginia Outstanding Professor Award from the State Council of Higher Education for Virginia, the state’s highest accolade given to college and university professors. She has also just completed training to serve on one of the U.S. Disaster Mortuary Operational Teams–part of the National Disaster Medical System–that are deployed in case of mass fatalities.

Boyd says she often has nightmares about the cases she works, particularly if a violent crime involved a child. But her sense of responsibility keeps her going: “The skill I have is both a curse and a blessing. It’s a service I’m trained to perform that helps families get answers and achieve closure.”

No Scarpetta, No Tank Tops

Fans of novelist Patricia Cornwell and her character Kay Scarpetta, the fictional former medical examiner of Virginia, can’t help wondering if Donna Boyd sees any resemblance between herself and the well-known heroine.

“Honestly, I’ve never had time to read those books,” Boyd confesses. “A lot of people have asked me that. One day, I’m going to take a long vacation and read them.”

She has caught glimpses of the popular TV shows based on forensic investigation, like CSI.

“I’m certainly not that kind of investigator with a gun and a tank top,” she laughs. The concept that the field people and the lab staff are one and the same has no basis in reality, she says–“it just doesn’t happen that way.”