“The ones that come first are the bravest,” says Laura Feldman ’81, referring to Marilyn Kerr, an assistant professor of biology, who died last month after 41 years of service to the College of Arts and Sciences.
A former student of hers, Feldman remembers when Kerr was one of only two tenured female biology professors at Syracuse. “She was a wonderful teacher who helped women negotiate what had been a male-dominated department,” says the Philadelphia-based attorney, who also is a member of the A&S Board of Visitors and co-chair of the Biology Advisory Board. “Looking at the gender composition of the biology department today, I can say that her legacy is secure.”
Teaching and research brought Kerr to Syracuse in 1970, but it was academic advising that made her stay. The second woman to earn a Ph.D. in zoology from Duke University, Kerr spent two decades running the Health Professions Advisory Program (HPAP) in A&S. In the process, she built HPAP into a national model of excellence, while helping thousands of students and alumni gain entry into the health professions.
It’s no surprise, then, that employment equity and stereotyping mattered deeply to her. She made this known while assisting in the conceptualization of the Life Sciences Complex, which opened in 2008. Today, the building is an engineering marvel, bringing together students and faculty from diverse backgrounds to push the boundaries of biology and chemistry.
Margaret Voss G’02, professor of practice in public health, food studies and nutrition in Falk College, remembers Kerr as a “tiny woman with the heart of a lion.” “She had wisdom beyond imagination and a sense of humor that brought mirth to unexpected places,” Voss says. “I really miss her.”
Committed to paying it forward, Kerr made a generous gift to the Department of Biology that led to the creation of the Marilyn Sue Kerr Graduate Scholars Endowed Fund—a full ride for a Ph.D. student in biology.