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Stafford in past

Stafford accepted a position in 1954 as Reed’s sole biology professor specializing in botany and only female faculty member in the sciences. While already well known, Reed’s biology department was small and underfunded. Stafford remembers that even then, Kleinholz had a vision for a grant-funded program that emphasized analytical thinking, shifted the focus from information to process, and integrated classroom teaching and vigorous research by both faculty and students. It would become the first such undergraduate program in the U.S. The timing was impeccable; the National Science Foundation and National Institutes of Health had been created just a few years before; both promised funding for exactly this kind of approach.

She and her biology colleagues Kleinholz, Laurens Ruben, Frank Gwilliam, and Dick Siegel were much more than professors; they were partners in the department’s transformation. The four operated out of cramped corners in Eliot Hall. Their equipment was rudimentary at best. But creativity, commitment, and a close collegiality helped the professors lay the groundwork for what today is one of the top undergraduate biology programs in the U.S.

Stafford and other faculty members tapped NSF grants to help equip the growing department. She continued to earn grants and fellowships even after she retired from teaching at Reed in 1987. Several of her grants funded research sabbaticals, including a Guggenheim Fellowship at Harvard, an NSF senior postdoctoral fellowship at UCLA, and work on condensed tannins at the Oregon Graduate Center. The experiences fed her adventurous spirit, and she savored these opportunities to meet new people, travel, and do pure research.

While most of the students in the department focused on animals, Stafford led a small but dedicated group of botanists, many of whom went on to careers in plant physiology, anatomy, and biochemistry. She challenged them to do the highest-quality work and offered them the opportunity to learn—while being paid as research assistants.

Professor Maryanne McClellan recalls one of her own students who preferred to do her senior thesis under Stafford because “Helen had incredibly high expectations in the lab. She was committed to ensuring that students were properly grounded in practical research and thinking tools,” she says. “Hers was one of the most lab-intensive courses in the department. Yet Helen’s students were fiercely loyal and respected the level she raised them to.”

Stafford savored the hands-on work and continued to have thesis students until four years after she retired. Many recall her teaching style as “intense,” “demanding,” “rewarding,” and “very positive.” Bert Brehm, emeritus professor who became the department’s second botanist in 1962, remembers that “she focused very sharply on the issue at hand; she didn’t stray into sidelights.” And David Dalton, who filled her position when she retired, says that she “gave a lot of information that was very much centered on the literature and current understanding of the subjects.”

While teaching, Stafford also actively researched. Her broad and deep work on aromatic compounds, flavonoids, proanthocyanidins, and the particular compounds plants use for defensive purposes and to make structural materials consistently broke new ground. She was president of the Phytochemical Society of North America, served as commissioner of the Committee for Undergraduate Education in Biological Sciences, was a member of the editorial board of Plant Physiology for nearly 30 years, and was editor of Recent Advances in Phytochemistry. She published the definitive text, Flavonoid Metabolism. In 1996 she earned the Charles R. Barnes Award of the American Society of Plant Physiologists.

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