Biology Professor Ruth Schmitter has been captivated by nature since she was six. As a girl, she would walk around her hometown of Mason, Michigan looking for wildflowers.
Schmitter’s fascination for flora took her to Michigan State University in 1960, where she studied botany and plant pathology. It was at MSU’s electron microscopy lab where, in return for cleaning glassware, she was able to use the lab’s microscopes and her interest in cell biology came into focus. Now, she teaches classes like medical microanatomy, her favorite, at Albion College, where she has been a faculty member since 1982. After 35 years, she will retire at the end of this semester.
Schmitter has enjoyed being a part of the biology department. “We don’t think alike on everything, but we get along well,” she said. “We care about what happens to each other, and we care mutually about the students who take our classes.”
That benevolence towards students runs deep in the Fulbright scholar. It was a contributing reason as to why she decided to buy a home in town. Not only could she be a part of the Albion community, she could see her students perform at a concert or play their sport. Schmitter enjoys being able to witness what motivates them, regardless of the number of classes they take with her.
“Despite having taken only one class with her, Dr. Schmitter has made a considerable effort to get to know me, as well as other classmates,” said Allison Voorhess, a Mount Clemons, Michigan, senior. “After I had missed a few days of class for an equestrian team competition, Dr. Schmitter took the time to ask me how it had went and still occasionally brings up my involvement with horses. She is always pleasant to talk to.”
Schmitter’s interest in students was also a reason for her decision to teach at Albion over other colleges who placed importance on research rather than being a professor. For instance, at Michigan State, she was told that it was “too bad” that she had received an award for her teaching while at the University of Massachusetts Boston, signifying their want for a professor who focused on research rather than their students.
But Schmitter looks fondly at her time there. At UMass Boston, many of her students were the first people in their families to go to college, and many of them had to work hard to pay for their tuition. One of her favorite students, for instance, worked as a tree surgeon just to earn enough money to attend.
Much like the students in Boston, Schmitter has witnessed and experienced being a first in college as both a student and professor. While attending Michigan State, she never saw a woman above the rank of instructor. At the University of Edinburgh in Scotland, where Schmitter used her Fulbright to obtain a Master’s, only two female professors could be found in the zoology department. And while she saw a noticeable number of women teaching when at Harvard receiving her doctorate, none were tenured.
Similarly, when Schmitter arrived at Albion, Dr. Clara Dixon was the only other female biology professor, and she retired the school year after Schmitter arrived. That left Dr. Beth Lincoln as the only other woman in the science and math departments.
“In terms of women, it’s much better than it was…absolutely, enormously improved since when I came,” said Schmitter. “In the ethnic diversity part, I would say we’re not doing so well.”
It is perhaps fitting, then, that a Latinx professor, Dr. Marcella Cervantes, will be taking over Schmitter’s classes next fall.
As for Schmitter’s future plans, traveling is a priority. Places where biodiversity flourish – Costa Rica, the Amazon area, the Galapagos Islands – are of particular interest, especially before climate change takes its toll on them, she said.
“We’ve been colleagues a long time,” said Lincoln, “and I’ve always admired her dedication to students. I don’t know anyone who puts in longer hours or works harder than she does. We’re all going to miss her.”
Indeed, students and faculty alike must appreciate Schmitter deeply. Just yesterday, at the Honors Convocation, two weeks before her retirement, she received the Mark Sheldon Putnam, ‘41, and Mildred Plate Putnam, ‘41, Faculty Mentoring Award. According to the program, it “recognizes a faculty member who has consistently displayed the willingness and ability to provide quality mentoring.” The crowd gave her a standing ovation.
Photo by Beau Brockett Jr.