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Tuesday, May 21, 2024

UF history professor appointed to prestigious national science board

Smocovitis operates in crosshairs between history, biology

<p>Wearing a green silk scarf gifted to her by a student, Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis pulls a book from the shelf in her office, located in Carr Hall, Friday, March 31, 2023. </p>

Wearing a green silk scarf gifted to her by a student, Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis pulls a book from the shelf in her office, located in Carr Hall, Friday, March 31, 2023.

Vassiliki Betty Smocovitis — professor Betty, as she’s known by students — was in the middle of teaching a class when she received a call from the American Association for the Advancement of Science.

She recognized the organization from the Washington, D.C., area code — she was expecting the call.

“I thought they were calling to break the bad news to me,” she said.

But when she picked up, it was the CEO of the AAAS on the line, who personally wished her congratulations for winning a seat on the AAAS board of directors.

As one of the organization’s newest board members, Smocovitis will serve four years, traveling four times a year to various U.S. cities for meetings. Her work starts in April, when the board will meet in Washington, D.C.

Through her research, she has looked at both positive and negative facets of scientific history: while science explains human evolution, it also paved the way for eugenics, for example.

“There’s this really earnest attempt to own the past and to recognize that the sciences are a spectacular practice with this rich and marvelous history,” she said. “But it's also done harm.”

The largest multidisciplinary science society in the world, the AAAS, holds meetings for members from across scientific fields — including humanities, like history and philosophy — to advance the sciences as a whole. It also publishes “Science” magazine, a renowned academic journal, and other peer-reviewed news.

Earlier this year, colleagues nominated Smocovitis, a longtime AAAS member and officer, to run for the board. Although she’s been an officer with the organization for more than 25 years, she was surprised to be nominated, she said, because she is, first and foremost, a historian.

Smocovitis lingers between UF’s departments of history and biology, teaching courses in both. Though she earned degrees in biology, she considers herself more a historian, she said. 

Her specialty is a cross between the two: the history of science — specifically, evolutionary biology. Books on the human species line her office wall floor to ceiling, and she owns no shortage of Charles Darwin-themed memorabilia: a Darwin mini-figurine, a monkey holding a human skull, and a birthday card inscribed with an evolution pun.

“I've never seen any kind of split between science and history because I've always gravitated toward those sciences that were historical,” she said.

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Her attraction toward this scientific niche is in her DNA, she said. Born in Egypt to Greek parents, Smocovitis’ first historical interest was in her family heritage, partially thanks to a trip to the Egyptian pyramids when she was 4. 

Hanging on a magazine rack in Smocovitis’ office, beneath a copy of “Science,” is her father’s name tag from his time working at Windsor Regional Cancer Center in Ontario. He was a physicist — and her first unofficial science teacher, she said. 

It was with him that she attended her first AAAS meeting in Detroit in the early 1980s. When she was elected onto the board, she immediately thought of him, wishing he was alive to hear the news.

“I wish I could tell my father,” she said. “The twist is that I did this through history, not by being a great scientist. I did this by being a teacher, scholar of history, loving science, but also by seeing the damage that it has done.”

Smocovitis has been a member of the AAAS since that first meeting in 1982, when she was a graduate student at Cornell University. Throughout the 1990s, she presented research at meetings, eventually running for and winning officer positions within the organization’s history and philosophy of science section.

Smocovitis was one of the first people Andrew Black, AAAS chief of staff, met when he joined the organization almost nine years ago, he said. Recently, they’ve spent more time together on a project to modernize AAAS governance and structure — time which has allowed him to know her better as a colleague, he said.

“She listens to understand, and her contributions are always powerful and really drive the strategic direction of a conversation,” he said. “That's great, and a lot of people do that, but on top of that, she's just an absolute delight and a joy to be around.”

Despite traveling for board meetings, Smocovitis will continue teaching at the university. In fact, her experiences in the classroom will partially inform her work on the board, she said.

“You're sharpening your mind because younger people see the world differently,” she said. “Very often their reactions startle me and delight me, and I have to think about them. But I learn, so I get to take this into this big organization.”

Classroom discussion not only lets her understand the perspectives of the younger generation, she said, but also of a range of disciplines.

She has students in a number of majors from biology to journalism; but they’re all united by a shared interest in scientific history. Several of them have gone on to be science writers, doctors and scientists, Smocovitis said. 

At the core of her work, both in and out of the classroom, is an interdisciplinary approach.

Patrick Grey, a 21-year-old UF history junior, said he was unfamiliar with genetics and other scientific concepts before taking Smocovitis’ class. But he appreciated that Smocovitis doesn’t tailor her classes to just one type of student, he said.

“​​Her pedagogy was: Don't try to limit yourself by putting yourself in a box,” he said. “Always explore different fields, even if they don't have anything to do with each other. Because at the end of the day, it just makes you a more interesting person.”

Grey went on to become the first UF student in 15 years to win the Beinecke scholarship, an award to fund his graduate studies — and he couldn’t have won it without Smocovitis’ help, he said.

Annalisse McKee, a 24-year-old UF physiology and pharmacology master’s student, was also Smocovitis’ student last Fall. Smocovitis’ Genetics and the Human Imagination course was McKee’s favorite of her undergraduate career, she said.

McKee got to know Smocovitis during office hours — one session ending with a two-hour conversation about good books on the shelf.

“She's super knowledgeable, she's super passionate and she's really caring to all of her students,” she said.

Smocovitis is doing exactly what she dreamt of doing since she was a child, she said. It’s advice she gives to all her students.

“You’re never going to be happy, and chances are you’re not going to be good, unless you’re literally pursuing what you love to do,” she said.

Contact Alissa at Follow her on Twitter @AlissaGary1.

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Alissa Gary

Alissa is a sophomore journalism major and University Editor at The Alligator. She has previously covered student government, university administration and K-12 education. In her free time, she enjoys showing photos of her cats to strangers.

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