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 Fall 2011

Dr. Judith Voet: Scholar Scientist Antiochian

“I don’t know what to call the kind of education I received at Antioch, but it was no fad. I’ve valued it all my life.”

Judith Greenwald Voet

Judith Greenwald Voet ’63, Professor Emerita of Chemistry at Swarthmore College, is reluctant when it comes to receiving honors for her work. The latest award will be presented to her next April when the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology (ASBMB) will cite her and her husband, Donald, for “Exemplary Contributions to Education.” Don is an associate professor of chemistry at the University of Pennsylvania.

“I feel honored,” Voet said, “but I also feel uncomfortable. It’s been hard to explain to people what has motivated me my whole career, but the plaque that was in the Antioch Science Building sums it up. It read: ‘This is a place to work in, not a monument to anybody.’ In other words, I have been working in chemistry and biochemistry because I love it—not for any other reason. ‘Success’ as generally defined, or ladder-climbing has never been high on my radar screen, and I never expected any accolades or awards.”

As an Antioch student, Voet was able to explore the beginnings of several life paths before choosing chemistry. She briefly majored in philosophy and then education. “I had two co-op jobs related to nursing,” she recalls. “I received a poor evaluation in one because my supervisor said I was too ‘independent.’ I realized the supervisor was correct, and that I liked being independent.”

Soon, Voet chose a field in which she could maintain her personal integrity and do what she loved to do best—learning and studying.

“When I first came to Antioch, I was Judy Greenwald from Queens,” she said. “My parents grew up in the Depression and neither had graduated from high school. But they knew I loved to study, and they supported me.”

And study she did. She remembers that “many Saturday nights I heard the folk dance music coming from Red Square, and was tempted to join in, but I would be studying or checking data. Of course, sometimes I was lured into dancing after I had finished.”

But she never felt cut off from the rest of the community. “There was space for pendants like me,” she said. Voet was in the same class as Joan A. Steitz, Sterling Professor of Molecular Biophysics and Biochemistry at Yale; Stephen J. Gould, the preeminent evolutionary biologist, paleontologist, and science historian; and several others who became scientists or physicians.

“There were twelve students in my chemistry class,” Voet remembers, “and ten were women. Remarkable for that time.”

Many of the students she met at Antioch became lifelong friends. “I met my future husband through this cohort,” she said. Voet was earning her PhD at Brandeis and Don was at Harvard. “We might not have shared the Antioch culture,” she explains, “but we shared the culture of scientists, and we both love to travel.”

After doing postdoctoral work at the University of Pennsylvania, Haverford College, and the Fox Chase Cancer Center, Voet joined the faculty of Swarthmore College outside of Philadelphia and Don became an associate professor at the University of Pennsylvania, which is nearby.

Together they authored the comprehensive textbook Biochemistry, a 1,782-page source of current knowledge about biochemistry and molecular biology; co-authored Fundamentals of Biochemistry, a textbook that has been translated into nine languages and gone through many editions; and co-edit Biochemistry and Molecular -Biology Education, a journal for science educators.

“Science in general and biochemistry in particular can be divided into the study of structure and the study of function,” Voet said. “Don is a structural biochemist and I focus more on function. Together, we cover the field, so to speak.”

Judith Greenwald Voet

Together, whether they like it or not, Don and Judy Voet have become superstars in their field. When they travel, students insist on getting their pictures taken with them. Now their work is receiving the ASBMB’s highest honor.

In her letter recommending Judy and Don Voet for the ASBMB award, Yale’s Professor Steitz wrote that the journal edited by the Voets has provided her with new ideas for engaging her students in active learning.

Judy Voet said she was always traditional as a professor. “I focused on delivering lectures that conveyed my enthusiasm to students and told them what content I thought was important for them to learn,” she said. “They then would learn the material outside the classroom through readings.”

Voet always thought of herself first and foremost as a scholar and a scientist. “I never thought of myself as being in ‘education.’ Don and I were glad if the content in our textbooks helped professors teach in the classroom, but that was not our primary goal. Our goal was to be as rigorous as possible in presenting the most up-to-date knowledge, and that knowledge was always changing. We never tried to simplify facts so that undergraduates would ‘understand’ them. We were trying to understand the facts ourselves.”

Voet is now retired from the classroom and said that her way of teaching has given way to “active learning.” Researchers found that science students could learn a lot of facts through traditional methods and could do well on tests, but that they soon forgot what they had learned. With active learning techniques, students do more learning in the classroom itself. The emphasis is on learning to learn.

“In recent years, ‘active learning’ has made more sense to me,” Voet said. “People forget material they don’t use every day. With active learning, if students forget facts they can go back and access what they forgot. Also, learning to learn in science is vital because the knowledge itself is always changing.”

For someone who never thought of herself primarily as a teacher, Voet has been receiving a lot of accolades for being an educational innovator. It gave her food for thought when asked if educational innovation became deeply, maybe unconsciously, ingrained in her through her Antioch -College -experience.

In retrospect, she sees her co-op jobs as being tremendously effective exercises in experiential learning. Most of her jobs were in laboratories, working with people who did research for a living and had to apply it to real-life situations. This was life-changing for her. She learned how to relate to professionals in the world of work and saw how her work fit into the real world.

More important, perhaps, is that through her co-op jobs, Voet learned to make her way in new cities and new situations. “Through living on my own and making my own life decisions, I became empowered,” she said.

Whether or not Voet’s Antioch experience influences the choices she and Don Voet make for articles to run in Biochemistry and Molecular Biology Education, Antiochians would feel comfortable with much of the material in the journal. For example, there is a regular column for classroom professors on how to be effective “change agents” in the teaching of science. Also, there are articles on student-centered education, and a regular feature by David Goodsell that combines art with scientific techniques to illustrate the machinery of life. How Antiochian is that?

Voet has been active in helping Antioch’s rebirth. She’s had a hand in writing two science courses and in hiring a chemistry professor. She also served on the search committee that selected Mark Roosevelt as Antioch’s new president.

“I was looking for someone who believed in liberal arts education, as opposed to ‘training,’” she said, “and who was a supporter of the sciences. I hoped to find someone who believed that diversity extended not only to skin color and ethnicity but also to economic status and political views. I thought we needed someone who could listen to all views and bring the diverse parts of our alumni community together. I think we have found the perfect person in Mark Roosevelt.”

Voet is grateful to Antioch for giving her a rigorous education and for allowing her to have experiences that she probably would not have had at other schools. “At any other school, I probably would have done nothing but read and study,” she said. “At Antioch, I was able to do this and integrate it into learning about the real world.

“I hate to label any given pedagogical technique because the label itself makes the technique seem like a fad,” Voet said. “I don’t know what to call the kind of education I received at Antioch, but it was no fad. I’ve valued it all my life.”


Larry Rubin ’65 has worked in the labor movement for forty-five years. He lives in Takoma Park, Maryland.