Science and the Sense of Belonging
David Ribble ’82 talks about the role of undergraduate research in STEM education

Naturally gifted at mathematics, David Ribble ’82, Ph.D., wanted to be an engineer when he grew up. He planned to attend Trinity University, which had a strong engineering program within a small school environment, exactly the combination he was looking for. Ribble’s future was laid out for him—or so he thought.

The summer before his senior year of high school, Ribble toured different science labs at the University of Texas at Austin as part of a summer camp. And while the engineering lab’s work on concrete walls was less than thrilling, he found himself pausing in the biology lab, his curiosity piqued. Students blended fruit flies into a gooey mixture, which was, they explained to the campers as they scooped it out, essentially the flies’ DNA. Ribble stared slack-jawed at the slimy composition dripping off the spoon. He was hooked.

Ribble graduated from Trinity in 1982 with a biology degree, returning 10 years later as an assistant professor in the same department. He climbed the ranks, attaining full professorship, and then transitioned into an administrative role in Academic Affairs as associate vice president of budget and research. This fall, 45 years after he first stepped foot on campus, Ribble began his tenure as dean of the newly formed School of Science, Engineering, and Mathematics.

Throughout all of these positions, Ribble has been known for his advocacy of hands-on research as a critical component of Trinity’s liberal arts education. He’s led undergraduates on trips to New Mexico, Tanzania, South Africa, Mexico, and the San Antonio missions. Most recently, he has taken students to Costa Rica every summer since 2017 to study the effects of climate change on the distribution of various mammal species across different elevations.

We talked with Ribble about his new position and the impact of undergraduate research on college education and beyond.

You bring a unique perspective in that you’ve been on the student, faculty, and administrative sides. 
I really enjoy working in administration and continuing to teach and do research with students. I think it brings administrative work to light in ways that are really important. It keeps you grounded in terms of why we’re here, what we’re doing, how it benefits students, and how it benefits faculty. So while it sometimes seems like I don’t have time to teach the class, I like to say I don’t have time not to teach the class.

Ribble has spent more than three decades teaching and researching with Trinity students.

Why are you excited to be dean? 
I’m looking forward to continuing to promote the opportunities that make Trinity such a great place to study science. I also want to help departments think about their curricula and classes and how we promote a sense of belonging for all students with those things.

What do you mean by “sense of belonging”? 
We know that one of the reasons students may not do as well as they want to in science is because they don’t get a sense that they belong in the greater enterprise of science— that means in the classroom, that means in the labs, that means doing research. Students see science as exploration, and too often, professors just throw the book at ‘em without giving them the opportunity to really get their hands wet and explore things. Students who are interested in science really want to do science, and they want to do science in the lab and the field.

David Ribble has been leading students on research trips to Costa Rica since 2017.

What’s really great about research at Trinity is that, through undergraduate research, students get invested in science, and they start to learn about themselves, and they start to learn why they’re interested in science. It’s so much more effective than learning in the classroom. They’re using the techniques and the methods they’ve learned about, and that’s very empowering for their education. Ultimately then, the students feel like they belong to the enterprise of science. Once they feel like they belong, they become very invested in their education and really start to excel. And that’s why all of our research opportunities are so, so darn important.

How does that sense of belonging carry past the students’ time at Trinity? 
The great thing about science is that when students get invested in it, they are really getting invested in how they’re learning. They learn methods and problem-solving skills they can take on to their future endeavors in their life. Conducting research gives students the confidence to do any number of things as they move beyond Trinity.

David Ribble is one of five deans who lead four schools and Coates Library at Trinity. Meet the other deans through a video series.

Molly Mohr Bruni is the managing editor for Trinity University Strategic Communications and Marketing.

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