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In Honor of Elizabeth Ann Vallen, Howard A. Schneiderman ’48 Professor of Biology

Liz Vallen

Acting Co-Presidents Tomoko Sakomura and Rob Goldberg shared the following message with the campus community on April 12, 2024:

Dear Friends, 

With deep sadness, we write to share the news that Elizabeth Ann Vallen, the Howard A. Schneiderman ’48 Professor of Biology, died at her home in Swarthmore on Wednesday, April 10, after a long illness. She was 59.

Liz, who served on the faculty for 29 years, is remembered as an innovative and effective teacher, accomplished and admired researcher, and kind and generous mentor to colleagues and students alike. Her legacy also extends to the curiosity and passion for science that she instilled in students of all ages, most demonstrably through the Chester Children’s Chorus’ Science for Kids Program, which she established and led for many years.

Liz is survived by her husband Stephen DiNardo, their children Zachary and Abigail, three siblings and their partners, and numerous nieces and nephews.

In lieu of flowers, the family welcomes contributions to the Chester Children’s Chorus or the American Cancer Society. On Saturday, April 13, the family will receive visitors from 4-7 p.m. at their home, 351 Riverview Road, in Swarthmore. A funeral will take place on Sunday, April 14, at 11 a.m. at the Laurel Hill West Conservatory, where guests are invited to wear purple or other colorful attire.

We invite you to read more below about Liz and the many ways her lasting contributions will be remembered by our community. 

Tomoko Sakomura
Acting Co-President
Provost and Dean of the Faculty and Professor of Art History

Rob Goldberg
Acting Co-President
Vice President for Finance and Administration

In Honor of Howard A. Schneiderman ’48 Professor of Biology Elizabeth A. Vallen

Howard A. Schneiderman ’48 Professor of Biology Elizabeth A. Vallen died Wednesday, April 10. She was 59. With her passing, the Swarthmore community has lost a beloved and gifted scholar, educator, and role model whose work with the Science for Kids (SFK) program embodied her commitment to and passion for science education.
“Liz was the heart of our department,” says Associate Professor and Chair of Biology Bradley Davidson ’90. “Her extraordinary kindness, compassion, dedication, and care were at the core of our departmental values as a community. Her rich, intellectual engagement with scientific questions and exploration, and her ability to ignite her students with this passion, exemplify what it means to be a teacher and scholar at Swarthmore.”

“Liz was an absolute treasure — an incredibly smart and insightful biologist, and also the kindest, wisest, most creative, and compassionate of many great colleagues in the Biology Department,” says Howard A. Schneiderman ‘48 Professor Emerita of Biology Kathy Siwicki.

“I think that the core of Liz’s success as a teacher and mentor and what made her a dear friend to so many was her deep empathy,” says Rachel Merz, the Walter Kemp Professor Emerita in the Natural Sciences and Professor Emerita of Biology. “She could quickly recognize for another person what might be frightening, thrilling, or ridiculous in their circumstance, and used her insight about a person to help them in ways that were creative, effective, and very often fun.”

Born and raised in Northeast Philadelphia, Vallen graduated from Lincoln High School and attended Case Western Reserve University as a first-generation college student before that term had been coined. Her undergraduate experiences — including not realizing until she was hired to work in a Case Western lab that someone could be paid to study science — later informed how she ran her own lab and helped colleagues appreciate first-gen student perspectives. 

Vallen earned a B.A. magna cum laude in biochemistry from Case Western and a Ph.D. in molecular biology from Princeton University. She held two post-doctoral fellowships — in neurobiology and genetics at Yale University, and to analyze yeast cell cycle regulation at The Rockefeller University — before joining Swarthmore’s biology faculty in 1995.

At Swarthmore, Vallen taught introductory courses in cell and molecular biology, and a seminar on symbiotic interactions. In biology, Vallen was “never deterred by systemic or pedagogical challenges,” Siwicki says. “Rather, she routinely came up with bold and creative solutions.”

Professor of Biology Nick Kaplinsky describes Vallen as the “consummate teacher, always ready to try out new pedagogical innovations to better support our students.”

Among her innovations: She instituted oral exams in her Cell Biology course to help prospective Honors students gain early presentation experience. She also moved her Biology 001 office hours from an inconspicuous Science Center hallway to the building’s centrally located Eldridge Commons, inspiring her colleagues to do the same when they teach the class. 

“I have shared this idea, always attributing its origin to Liz, with people on other campuses, and it has spread,” says Isaac H. Clothier Jr. Professor Emerita of Biology Amy Cheng Vollmer. “She also developed a superb cell biology lab exercise that combined genetics, cell biology, and biochemical concepts; it has since been published and widely adopted.”

Between her two stints as department chair, Vallen instituted the Biology Scholars Program that is associated with the department’s introductory courses. “She used her wise diplomatic instincts to persuade all members of the Biology faculty to invest in its implementation,” Siwicki says. “No one invested more in that program in its early years than Liz did.”

Perhaps most memorably, to teach meiosis and mitosis, Vallen would invite students to come to the front of class and use pool noodles to act out how chromosomes interact. 

“T​hat always generated laughter and understanding of these core biological processes,” Kaplinsky says. “This tradition will live on.”

“Liz had the highest regard for the abilities and goals of her students and colleagues,” Merz says, “and she challenged and supported them so that they achieved more than they imagined.”

An accomplished scholar, Vallen made major contributions to the understanding of cell division. When the journal Cell Biology Education first launched in 2002, she served on the editorial board in recognition of her national reputation in biology pedagogy.

“Liz devoted so much time to helping others become better teachers and better people,” Kaplinsky says. “She taught me what it is to be a faculty member and helped me understand the deep importance of taking care of our students holistically.”

Then in the early 2010s, Vallen significantly changed her research focus to explore the relationship between corals and sea anemones and photosynthetic algae. 

“She had the courage to switch research fields and enjoy a collaboration with her friend, Rachel Merz, to study the cell biology of corals and coral bleaching, an area of great interest as a consequence of climate change,” Vollmer says. “She brought rigor and mechanistic investigation to a field that was largely descriptive and qualitative.” 

“Liz was committed to providing research opportunities to first-generation students and to helping them thrive as scientists,” says Eric Jensen, Walter Kemp Professor of Astronomy and Dean of Academic Success. “She made the change in part so that it would be easier to provide opportunities for more students.”

Vallen’s mid-career move was not just bold, but timely, as underscored by sabbatical work supported by the National Institutes of Health and National Science Foundation. Vallen also published frequently with undergraduate authors on the subject, among others. 

Vallen served on elected faculty committees several times and on the 2008 presidential search committee, a testament to the respect and trust the faculty as a whole had in her judgment. She was also a member of the First in Family Advisory Group. 

Beyond her contributions to her field, Davidson recalls Vallen as “an inspiration to all of us on how to craft a life that was centered on kindness and generosity.” ​​She put this into practice, he says, not just by establishing the Biology Scholars Program, but also as an early supporter of the Swarthmore Summer Scholars Program and in directing the SFK program. 

“When she saw an opportunity to partner with the Chester Childrens’ Chorus to offer fun and interactive science experiences for youngsters who otherwise might be inclined to think of science as ‘boring’ or ‘not my thing,’ she worked tirelessly to make SFK a reality,” Siwicki says.  

Vallen led the summer program, which began in 2004 with support from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI), and ensured that students in the Chorus would get hands-on experiences in science workshops taught by Swarthmore faculty, instructors, and undergraduate counselors — benefiting everyone involved. Over the years, SFK has grown from one class focused on biology with less than a dozen students to several different science levels with more than 50 students. 

“HHMI cited SFK in our grant applications as a gem in our proposal,” Vollmer says. “It has also been deployed by many other natural science and engineering faculty in the ‘broader impacts’ sections of their own grant proposals.”

For Vallen, “doing science” from year to year with the Chorus was a privilege and a pleasure. 

“I get to show them aspects of the world they might not otherwise have the opportunity to see,” she said in 2009. “The kids are very smart, competent, enthusiastic, and thoughtful. And when we have the Science Fair at the end of the summer, we see them really take ownership of their projects as they explain them to the other children so enthusiastically.”

Vallen also brought joy to her colleagues, taking great pleasure in “decorating” the offices of newly tenured faculty members in ways that involved lots of glitter hidden in books, paperwork, and other unexpected items. 

“​​I suspect that for many years to come, faculty in the department will find glittery reminders of her,” Kaplinsky says, “and when they do, they will be reminded of a truly inspirational faculty member.”

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