With a mischievous grin, Patricia "Trish" Dove (agronomy '80, M.S. geological sciences '84) reached into her pocket and pulled out a smooth brown egg. It was an ordinary egg from an ordinary hen—nothing unusual. But to Dove, a geoscientist, it was a beautiful example of her research into how animals grow and how minerals are organized into useful structures.
Geoscience isn't just about volcanoes and mountains. It's a combination of sciences aimed at understanding the planet. Over millions of years, organisms have developed the ability to grow minerals into a wide variety of skeletons, teeth, and sensors of all kinds. Dove's curiosity about these processes has led her to study how these structures form and repair themselves, and her work in this area has inspired a new generation of scientists.
Her inquisitiveness has been lifelong. Growing up in her native Bedford, Va., she was a keen observer of the outdoors—collecting leaves from tree species and Indian arrowheads from the soils of her family's farm. Throughout high school, she competed in local science fairs and presented scientific papers at the Virginia Junior Academy of Science.
During her senior year, Dove's study of how light intensity affects plants received a state award that sent her to the international Westinghouse (now Intel) science fair in Denver. Her proposal for that work earned her a $19 junior academy grant. "I was very proud of the support and never guessed it was only the beginning," Dove recalled.
During the past year, Dove has received multiple honors for her research into the formation of biological minerals. In a virtual landslide of recognition, she was elected to the National Academy of Sciences (NAS), named a 2013 Virginia Scientist of the Year, and awarded the Dana Medal from the Mineralogical Society of America. Then, in June, she was named a University Distinguished Professor at Virginia Tech.
In particular, the NAS induction and distinguished professor honor have secured for Dove a place among the university's most-lauded faculty members. Previously, only three other faculty members had been elected to the national academy while at Virginia Tech, and the academy's National Academy of Engineering has selected 16 Tech faculty members over the past 47 years. Meanwhile, only 1 percent of the university's total full-time faculty at a given time are recognized with the preeminent faculty rank of University Distinguished Professor.
"As an alumna who was recruited back to Virginia Tech as a faculty member 13 years ago, Dr. Patricia Dove has distinguished herself nationally and internationally while excelling in teaching and service at the university," said Virginia Tech Senior Vice President and Provost Mark McNamee. "Her accomplishments are most deserving of our highest faculty honor, University Distinguished Professor."
"I didn't expect this," Dove said of the honors. "I've just been doing what I do." Her friends, family, and colleagues are not surprised, however.
Professor Alexandra Navrotsky, then a faculty member at Princeton University, met Dove while she was pursuing a Ph.D. in geochemistry there. Now a professor at the University of California, Davis, and a national academy member elected in 1993, Navrotsky said she always expected Dove to have "a very successful career. Trish was always smart, focused, energetic, and nice."
Dove shares her success with her husband, Joe (agronomy '80, M.S. civil engineering '86). As undergraduates in the College of Agriculture and Life Sciences, they met while working in the State Soil Physical Characterization Laboratory run by Professor Dan Amos. Approaching the completion of their graduation requirements, Trish became interested in the geosciences, and Joe made plans to become a civil engineer. Thirty-three years later, they continue to work together, currently with a joint research project funded by the National Science Foundation: Joe, an associate professor of practice in the Virginia Tech Department of Civil and Environmental Engineering, serves as principal investigator.
A characteristic smile crossed Dove's face when she talked about her research. Most of the projects that she and her team undertake are focused on detailed measurements of how tissue chemistry controls the placement and shapes of tiny crystals that bind together to produce a bone, tooth, or exoskeleton of a shell. For example, the scientists are working to establish the processes of biomineralization and biogeochemistry that control the timing and amount of mineral that forms to produce shell shapes.
The researchers also ask the reverse question: What can fossil skeletons preserved in rocks teach us about early Earth's history? "The forces that change animals over geologic time are complex, but usually are connected to shifts in environment, predators, and their ecological niche," Dove said. Fossil biominerals leave many clues about these conditions.
Recently, Dove explained some of this research to youngsters participating in Kids' Tech University in Blacksburg. Aimed at 9- to 12-year-olds, Virginia Tech's annual STEM-related program communicates the excitement of science and engineering to hundreds of kids from all over the East Coast. Using Legos and other simple models, she showed the children how crystals are assembled from atoms to make beautiful snowflakes and gemstones, then showed them that crystals are everywhere as biominerals.
While talking about her research, Dove delighted in passing around various shells to show how intricate they are with tiny compartments, interesting patterns, or mother-of-pearl on the shell's interior. "The best-known biominerals are the crystals in shells and our bones. But did you know that animals also can grow structures that filter light and food? And that bacteria can make a mineral compass? And starfish can grow sensors that detect movement and shadows?"
"The excitement is what has propelled her," said E. Michael Perdue, who was a professor at Georgia Tech when Dove applied for a job there after she had completed her doctorate at Princeton. Because the search committee didn't hire her, she accepted a National Science Foundation post-doctoral fellowship to work at Stanford University. But the faculty at Georgia Tech had been so impressed with her that when another position opened up, Perdue asked her to re-apply. "I lobbied her pretty hard," he said.
That persistence paid off; Dove stayed at Georgia Tech for seven years, first as an assistant professor and then as an associate professor.
"Trish is a wonderful mentor [to] her students; she maximizes their potential for success," said Perdue, now the director of Ball State University's Ph.D. program in environmental sciences. "She is good at choosing her graduate students, assessing their potential, and interacting with them.
"Most important is that she passes on her excitement for determining how organisms influence their biominerals—control minerals—to build a structure for the organism to live."
The next stop for the Doves was a return to Virginia Tech. Trish's goal for returning was to take her research to the next level in the university's world-class Department of Geosciences. Over the past 12 years, she has become a full professor, been named C.P. Miles Professor of Science, developed the Biogeochemistry of Earth Processes group in the Department of Geosciences, and received many other honors.
In all, Dove has directed 15 doctoral and master's students and has advised seven postdoctoral fellows. She teaches courses in environmental geochemistry and oceanography, along with conducting research, presenting at science meetings, and writing grant proposals and research papers.
One thing that helped her advance her early research, Dove said, was her willingness to take risks. "Insights from my reading in other disciplines led me to propose some new hypotheses for how minerals interact with their environment. They were controversial, but I was convinced they were sound. At conferences, I was always pestering senior scientists with questions and ideas, and I shared data. I figured I had nothing to lose and everything to learn."
Nonetheless, this dynamic woman, raised on a central Virginia farm where her parents gave her a can-do work ethic, said it was support from others that fortified her to succeed in the competitive world of science. She credited her parents, her husband and family, and the many excellent scientists she has worked with over the years for helping her quietly climb the ladder of academic research.
"I've been fortunate to learn from many amazing people. They have been mentors and advocates," Dove said. "Both are critical to success, and I never forget the old saying, ‘If I have seen farther, it is by standing on the shoulders of giants.'"
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