William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professorships Honor Mark Grinstaff, Gary Lawson, and Dana Robert
Award goes to three who “represent the very best of Boston University’s faculty”
What does it mean to be named one of BU’s William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professors?
“I think it will allow me to do more of what I’m doing and to take greater risks in the research side,” says Mark Grinstaff, a College of Engineering professor of biomedical engineering and a College of Arts & Sciences professor of chemistry. “To work on projects that are more challenging, more interdisciplinary. It kind of reinforces the way I think about research and the way I work with my students.”
Grinstaff is one of the three professors named this week to receive the University’s highest honor for faculty, along with Gary Lawson, the School of Law Philip S. Beck Professor of Law and associate dean for intellectual life, and Dana Robert, the School of Theology Truman Collins Professor of World Christianity and History of Mission and director of the Center for Global Christianity & Mission.
“Through their research, scholarship, and teaching, Professors Robert, Grinstaff, and Lawson represent the very best of Boston University’s faculty—leading in their fields and being model citizens of our University. I am very proud to honor them as Warren Professors,” says Robert A. Brown, University president.
Established in 2008 and named in honor of BU’s first president, the William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professorships are bestowed upon senior faculty members who remain actively involved in research, scholarship, teaching, and the University’s civic life.
The professorship comes with an annual allowance of $30,000 for research, travel, and other scholarly activities, plus funding for a month of summer salary. Each recipient receives the emeritus title upon retirement. With these appointments, the number of active Warren Professors is 14. (Find the complete list here.)
“The naming of new Warren Professors at Boston University is a wonderful occasion,” says Jean Morrison, BU provost and chief academic officer. “Each has contributed so much throughout the years to the life of our community, advancing and broadening their fields and impacting countless students and colleagues, and I am hard-pressed to imagine three faculty members more deserving of this distinction.”
Each of the three learned about the award after being invited to One Silber Way for a meeting with Brown and Morrison. The appointments were announced in a letter sent by President Brown to the BU community on April 12.
“It’s hard to make me speechless, but I was getting pretty close,” Lawson says. “It’s a freakin’ big deal. Certainly nothing like that has ever happened to me in my time.”
“There are problems we address in the lab that can only be addressed through teams that are interdisciplinary,” Mark Grinstaff says. “In my lab, we have individuals getting chemistry, biomedical, and engineering degrees, mechanical engineering, materials science, pharmacology degrees, the MD/PhD. Bringing these individuals together to work on projects is quite exciting. And it’s nice that the University recognizes that and encourages me to keep doing it.”
While many schools are much more siloed, interdisciplinary work has become increasingly prized and encouraged at BU over the last decade, he says. “The boundaries are coming down, and the problems are becoming much more interesting at the interface of two disciplines. I think that is one of the strengths of BU. It’s nice to see that momentum.”
“Mark is a world-class researcher advancing innovative ways to design biomolecules for impacting a variety of disease conditions, ranging from arthritis to lung cancer,” says Kenneth R. Lutchen, dean of ENG and a professor of biomedical engineering. “But his impact goes well beyond his sensational science. He is the rare faculty who connects basic research to translational impact on people.”
For example, ask him what he did during the pandemic.
“In the lab here, when the pandemic hit, we felt it was important to think about ways we could try to contribute,” Grinstaff says. “In the lab, we started three new COVID-based projects which allowed us to learn some new biology, some new chemistry, some new biomedical engineering. The net result is we were able to create a brand-new diagnostic device for the detection of COVID.”
He and his team were inspired by the glucometer used by people with diabetes in approximately one in 10 homes in the United States. “We thought it would be exciting to take that glucometer and turn it into something that could tell you if you are positive for COVID, and we were actually able to do that,” he says. “It took expertise and a lot of hard work from a number of individuals in the lab. That’s just one example of thinking about how we can help society and at the same time learning and advancing science and engineering principles.”
To move the project forward, the team created a start-up at BU, which was recently acquired by Sorrento Therapeutics. The goal is to get the device into clinical trials in September. “We are quite excited to get to this stage,” Grinstaff says, “quite excited about a rapid technique that everybody could use at home.” The device, he notes, is capable of detecting all of the major COVID variants now in circulation.
“Professor Grinstaff clearly thrives on using his scientific expertise to develop novel solutions to challenging problems,” says Stan Sclaroff, dean of Arts & Sciences. “He is without question among our most successful and productive scientists. He has also succeeded in fostering collaboration and building programs with broad impact at Boston University. His impact goes beyond his research. He is widely recognized as an excellent instructor and has made important contributions at all levels of the curriculum in both chemistry and biomedical engineering.”
As for the funds that come with the professorship, Grinstaff says that “starting new projects in the lab is challenging. You need resources for supplies and students’ time just to try out ideas. This type of money allows one to do that, because there are no strings attached. This will provide key pilot resources for thinking about the next new ideas that come into the lab, and that is amazing.”
In reality, Gary Lawson was not quite speechless in that meeting with the president and provost. He remembers telling them: “I can’t believe I’m saying this in these circumstances, but I always think I’m just doing my job.” That’s true by all accounts, but it’s only part of the story.
“Professor Gary Lawson is so richly deserving of this honor. He is a force of nature and an indispensable member of our law faculty,” says Angela Onwuachi-Willig, dean of LAW and the Ryan Roth Gallo and Ernest J. Gallo Professor of Law. “He is what you call a quadruple threat: a stellar, top-cited scholar; an excellent teacher; a highly conscientious and generous member of the law school and University community; and a good person.”
Onwuachi-Willig notes that Lawson is the third most-cited public law scholar in the country and has been cited in 16 opinions written by United States Supreme Court justices. Lawson twice clerked for the late Justice Antonin Scalia, first at the Court of Appeals for the District of Columbia Circuit and then at the US Supreme Court
His areas of research include administrative law, constitutional law, and jurisprudence. “I have my nose in a lot of different tents,” Lawson says. “I’m more eclectic than a lot of people in the law business. It keeps me interested, and I like doing a lot of different things. I have probably half a dozen book projects in my head, and I can’t do them all. One of my tasks for the next month or two is to figure out which one is next.”
Onwuachi-Willig also says Lawson is a “model institutional citizen,” but he says he’s just doing what everyone should when it comes to commenting on a colleague’s work or advising on a research project.
“The object is to try to make whatever somebody is doing the best that it can possibly be. And that’s always just been obvious to me,” he says. “I actually do think I’m a good citizen in that respect, and it strikes me as peculiar that that would be noteworthy.”
Lawson has been public about the fact that he is on the autism spectrum, talking about it at length with BU Today when he won a Metcalf Award for Excellence in Teaching in 2017. One of his differences is that he lectures, rather than engages in the more typical back-and-forth seminar-style interchange with students; this made him an outlier at his previous institution, he says. But at BU, which he joined in 2000, students and faculty both seem to appreciate what he does, as evidenced by the Metcalf Award and now the William Fairfield Warren Distinguished Professorship.
“Nothing I have ever done has not been supported by this institution,” Lawson says. “No one has ever tried to say, ‘Why are you here, why are you doing that?’ That’s never been an issue.”
While he has a number of ideas for his next research projects, he’s not exactly sure how he will spend the annual Warren Professorship stipend.
“I’m actually a cheap date,” Lawson says. “There are people in this business who have research projects that are resource-intensive, but in law, if you’re not doing empirical research, which I don’t, the biggest expenses are research assistants and travel. I don’t travel much, I’m not a travel person, and I’ve never really used research assistants.
“I like to do the research myself,” he says, “because if I’m researching one thing, I’m always going to find stuff that doesn’t have anything at all to do with what I’m working on, but: oh, that’s kind of interesting and maybe that’s something that could be useful.”
“One of the things I’m excited about is that I’ll be the only Warren chair actually teaching what William F. Warren taught,” Dana Robert says, sitting in her book-lined office at the School of Theology. “He came here and taught mission, and then he taught world religions. He was a mission theologian.”
Mindful of the connection, she even went to Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge a few years ago and found Warren’s grave and those of several of his BU colleagues, along with that of his wife, Harriet Merrick Warren. Harriet Warren was a founder of the Methodist Woman’s Missionary Society at about the same time BU was founded and Warren installed as its first president.
Robert draws a direct connection between those 19th-century Methodists who founded BU and the concept of the “beloved community” and another famous denizen of the School of Theology, Martin Luther King, Jr. (GRS’55, Hon.’59).
“The ‘beloved community’ that Dr. King was always talking about is where, through personal relationships and social change, enemies become friends—a Christian vision of self-sacrifice and love,” she says. “What BU was standing for in the School of Theology and Warren’s philosophy was the person and community together, not one over the other.”
“There are not sufficient words to express the kaleidoscopic nature of Dr. Dana Robert’s professional and personal impact,” says G. Sujin Pak, dean of STH.
A mentor to more than 80 doctoral students who now serve in academic and ecclesiastical positions across the globe, Robert has cultivated a generation of scholars, teachers, and researchers, Pak says. “Her scholarship has been innovative and groundbreaking, providing pictures of the complexities of missionary lives and the central role of women in mission history, with careful attention simultaneously to the challenges of colonial histories and the integrity of relationships and friendships.”
It’s important to understand that mission work goes far beyond the stereotypical vision of European colonialism, Robert says. She notes that currently, Christianity is finding a new balance between adherents in Africa, Asia, and Central and South America and those in Europe and North America. For example, one might meet Christian missionaries from Africa whose mission is to reach out to people in the United States.
Robert says she will use much of her William Fairfield Warren Professorship stipend to support researchers on various projects for the Center for Global Christianity and Mission and its Digital Humanities Projects, including the ongoing Dictionary of African Christian Biography (first online in 1998) and the History of Missiology, groundbreaking efforts lauded for their impact.
In her own research, Robert continues exploration on the period right after World War I, when “Christians around the world began connecting with each other around ideas of friendship, fellowship, and what we call ecumenism. They believed that ‘the fatherhood of God and the brotherhood of man’—that’s the phrase they would have used—were foundational for global civil society, including human rights and peace-building. They saw ‘world community’ as an alternative to the extremes of fascism or communism.”
“Dana’s work crafts an expansive, ecumenical vision that exquisitely attends to places, cultures, theologies, and partnerships around the globe,” Pak says. “Dana’s legacy can be seen in this cultivation of a global network of scholars, her groundbreaking scholarship, her support of lay education, her impact on classrooms as her books serve as textbooks, and, perhaps most of all, the witness of how she honors the full integrity of the other through gracious, compassionate, wise, and deep listening.”