UB Today Alumni Magazine Online - Winter 2004
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  A Pioneer for Science
After 50 years at UB, physiology professor continues her teaching and research with verve and dedication

Story by Grace A. Lazzara

Photo by Mark Dellas

Perhaps it started, this defiance of society, in her youth in Corning, New York. Beverly Bishop, Ph.D. '58, wanted to take shop instead of home economics, but her school wouldn't allow it. And as a senior, she was the only girl in her class to get her driver's license before graduation.

"Women didn't drive in those days," Bishop says, referring to the 1930s.

SUNY Distinguished Teaching Professor in the Department of Physiology and Biophysics in UB's School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, Bishop is the author of more than 150 scholarly articles and editor of four books. She's also an award-winning researcher. Her path in life and in her career has almost never met society's expectations-then and now-for women. Even though Bishop herself isn't sure "what drove me," the life she fashioned featured a freedom of choice that was rare among women at that time.

When she went to college, only a few women did. Knowing the cost was a strain on her parents, she insisted on working to help pay her own way at Syracuse University. She studied liberal arts and mathematics, graduating magna cum laude. At Syracuse, she met her future husband, Charles, now associate UB professor in the department of medicine, and the couple married on their graduation day.

That, she says, "was the end of educational support from my parents. Girls weren't supposed to do anything intellectual after marriage."

Today, when 40-year careers with one employer are but a faded memory, Bishop has been happily employed at UB for 50 years-not 15, 50-with nary a thought of retirement crossing her mind.

"How," she asks, "could you possibly retire when science is so exciting?"

Continuing her studies at the University of Rochester after graduating from Syracuse, Bishop received an M.A. in psychology, which also gave her a small taste of her future field-physiology. However, when Bishop became a full-time mom, a thunderbolt struck.

"I loved it, but I got tired of talking to a baby," she says. Perhaps sensing her restlessness, her husband, then at UB's medical school, suggested she take an evening course.

"I took a physiology course at UB, and that was it," she remembers. Physiology, according to the American Heritage Dictionary of the English Language, is "the biological study of the functions of living organisms and their parts." For Bishop, the study of physiology tapped into her desire to know how the brain learns: "It was what I was looking for."

Then in the fall of 1956, Bishop and her husband journeyed to Glasgow, Scotland, for his further biochemical training as a visiting professor. Once there, she presented herself to the physiology department at the University of Glasgow.

Says Bishop, "They took me on and threw me into the labs to teach." In those labs, 60 experiments were set up concurrently in physiology and histology. Bishop was expected to oversee them all, though she had no background in histology, the study of animal and plant tissues. The experience was significant for her. Not only was it a sink-or-swim situation, but also the department was advanced in its use of electronic devices to record physical parameters like heart and breathing rates, devices that Bishop would later employ in her own work.

When she returned home to Buffalo, Bishop completed her dissertation, received her doctorate in physiology and joined UB's physiology department as an instructor. Her interest lay in pulmonary physiology-how the nervous system controls the lungs to move gas in and out of the body. "It was a marvelous environment," she says. "Our physiologists were trying to figure out why things work the way they do." During these first years, Bishop learned to become an independent scientific investigator, looking at things that no one else had ever done.

"That's the real creativity of the scientist," she says.

Her broad research objective over the years has been to identify and analyze how the nervous system controls muscle activity in animals and humans. Though she has concentrated on the muscles responsible for breathing, her work-like much in the field-has far-reaching import. Bishop puts it simply: "Everything we do depends upon the brain and the motor system."

Bishop's recent research focuses on circadian rhythms: the regular recurrence, in cycles of about 24 hours, of biological processes and activities such as sleeping, feeding and hormone secretion. This rhythm seems to be set by a "biological clock," which in turn seems to be set by patterns of daylight and darkness.

In experiments that she conducts with other researchers in a self-named "sleep group," animals' circadian rhythms are interrupted to learn more about how their functioning is affected by these breaks. The research ultimately will provide insight into the causes of sleep apnea, jet lag and other conditions affected by interrupted circadian rhythms.

In the midst of all her research, Bishop continues to teach. After 50 years, she has taught literally thousands of UB students and many still feel the effects of her influence.

One of those is Stuart A. Binder-Macleod, B.S. '74, professor and chair in the Department of Physical Therapy at the University of Delaware. Binder-Macleod got to know Bishop first as a teacher, taking a course from her after transferring to UB. Later, they wrote a grant that got funded, and he worked in her lab for a summer.

"After working in the lab," he says, "she became my mentor in the true sense of the word. She clearly was concerned about what I was doing and about my career. She also was a major factor in my decision to pursue an academic career and research."

Helene Hoffman, B.S. '72, another former student, agrees. After an experience as Bishop's student assistant one summer, Hoffman changed her major from nursing to health sciences. Working with Bishop, says Hoffman, "shaped me more than any other faculty interaction in my life." Hoffman is now assistant dean of educational computing and adjunct professor of medicine at the Division of Medical Education, University of California at San Diego (UCSD) School of Medicine. Among Bishop's colleagues at UB are individuals she once mentored. Margaret W. Paroski, M.D. '80, interim dean of the School of Medicine and Biomedical Sciences, is one of them. Paroski recalls Bishop saying, "If you want to learn how to teach, I'll let you teach in my course and tell you how you're doing.' I'm still teaching in her courses and still learning from her. We should clone Bev. She is as dynamic a teacher as you're going to find."

However, don't imagine that Bishop's impressive tenure has made her complacent. She worries about her teaching just as much now as when she started: "I cannot go before a class until I know thoroughly everything that I will tell them," she says.

UCSD's Hoffman confirms Bishop's dedication to getting her teaching just right. "Her presentations are typically laced with thought-provoking concepts that leave the listener with a sense of wonder and appreciation for the complexities of the human body. After all these years, I still use many of her course outlines as an inspiration for my own."

And even though people many years her junior are flummoxed by technology, Bishop keeps pace. In a recent project, for instance, she worked with the university's Educational Technology Center (ETC) staff to digitize and preserve extensive film footage of past experiments, lectures by visiting researchers, and clinical symptoms and signs.

David Willbern, professor of English at UB, met Bishop in 1999 during his first year as director of the ETC: "She was one of the first faculty members to indicate an interest in new teaching tools and in updating her own teaching resources and techniques," Willbern says. Bishop's project, funded by a faculty educational technology grant from the Provost's Office, salvaged material that could mean a great deal to students who might not have the distinct experience of studying with her. Adds Willbern, "She may eventually retire from teaching, but her current project to digitize and preserve course materials in modern media will ensure that her work remains available to future students."

In addition to her journey in academia, Bishop has had a parallel journey in her marriage with her husband, Charles. This year marks their 60th wedding anniversary. Starting with his encouragement to continue her studies, their partnership seems to have meshed on every level.

They built their own house from the ground up, raised a son and traveled together. "We worked out our lives together," Bishop says. Indeed, Bishop and her husband obtained their pilot's licenses on the same day and have flown their own plane over every state in the nation except Alaska. A much-anticipated trip to Easter Island- on commercial flights-is next.

Bishop clearly values Charles's support: "I married the right man," she says, laughing. "But we have done nothing conventional."

Grace A. Lazzara is a freelance writer based in Buffalo.

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