Maria Ragland Davis, 52, Did Research to Help Developing Countries

February 14, 2010

Maria Ragland Davis, 52, an associate professor of biology who was one of three academics killed on Friday in the shooting at the University of Alabama at Huntsville, started at the university in 2002. Her background was in chemical engineering and biochemistry, and she specialized in plant pathology and biotechnology applications.

She also specialized in student encouragement, said C.S. Prakash, a professor of plant molecular genetics at Tuskegee University, Ms. Davis's friend of almost 20 years. He said she was committed to involving young people, especially minority students and those from disadvantaged backgrounds, in science. That commitment dated back to when she was working in the private sector, he said.

"She was one of very few African-American scientists," Mr. Prakash said. "She was a great role model."

Over the years, Mr. Prakash would ask Ms. Davis to come speak to students at Tuskegee, a historically black institution, about working in the sciences. "She was always willing to come and help us out," he said. Ms. Davis was personable and affable, Mr. Prakash said, and students responded to her enthusiasm for science. "She had a way of connecting with many of them." He believes Ms. Davis motivated hundreds of students to go into science during her lifetime. "I think that is going to be her legacy."

She had a doctorate in biochemistry and had worked as a postdoctoral research fellow at the Monsanto Company in St. Louis. She was hired at the University of Alabama after a seven-year stint as a senior scientist in the plant-science department at Research Genetics Inc. (later Invitrogen), also in Huntsville.

Jim Hudson, founder of Research Genetics, met Ms. Davis in the early 1990s, when she was a professor at Alabama A&M University, doing agricultural genetics research. He recruited her to work in his company's research-and-development department.

Ms. Davis studied strawberries, looking at the genetic makeup of strains that were drought-resistant and those that were not.

"She was a dedicated, outstanding researcher who did some significant genomics research and went on to be a great instructor," Mr. Hudson said.

After the company was sold and moved to California, she was offered a job at the university in Huntsville. "She was a great private-sector researcher, but she was meant to be a professor," Mr. Hudson said. "She loved to teach; she inspired students. I was so happy when they gave her a job and tenure."

Bruce W. Stallsmith, an assistant professor in biological sciences at Huntsville, said she was passionate about her work, which included research that helped developing countries.

"Maria Davis was a very focused researcher who could talk to anyone at length about strawberries that she worked with," Mr. Stallsmith said. She was also a "very committed gardener at home, something that she thought about a lot and meant a lot to her."

She received a bachelor of science degree in chemical engineering from the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor, a master's degree in chemical engineering from North Carolina State University, and a doctorate in biochemistry, also from North Carolina State. After her fellowship at Monsanto, she worked from 1994 to 1995 as a research assistant professor at Alabama A&M.

On her university Web site, she described how students working in her laboratory would be trained to answer practical biological questions using biochemical, molecular, and genomics techniques while collaborating with other scientific labs on the campus, nationally, and internationally.

She is survived by Sammie Lee Davis, her husband.