By Jane Erikson
Every year since 2007, undergraduates have made physiology the second-most popular major at the University of Arizona.
And the UA is one of just a few institutions in North America to offer a physiology undergraduate major within a college of medicine.
This year, more than 1,700 students are enrolled as physiology majors and pre-majors. Their number has doubled over the last five years.
Now even more students may be able to continue their education, thanks to an undergraduate scholarship fund established by Physiology Professor Emerita Anne E. “Betty” Atwater, PhD.
“I’ve had this in mind for a long time,” Atwater says. “With tuition going up, students need to piece together funds from a number of sources. My hope is that this will allow more students to study this fascinating field.”
The scholarships will be awarded to students – most likely juniors and seniors – based primarily on merit, and secondarily on need, Atwater says.
What makes physiology so fascinating to undergrads?
“It’s all about how the body works,” she says. “Most of the students currently enrolled in the program plan to continue their studies following graduation to prepare for careers in medicine, physical therapy, dentistry, optometry or other health-care fields. But even for those who aren’t going into those fields, an understanding of physiology is still good information to have. You can understand what your doctor is talking about. That can be of help to you and the people close to you.”
Atwater began her career as a health and physical education teacher in Bloomfield, New Jersey. She completed her undergraduate degree at The College of New Jersey and her graduate degrees at the University of Wisconsin, Madison, specializing in kinesiology and biomechanics.
Atwater came to the UA in 1969 as associate professor of physical education in a department that was soon renamed exercise and sport sciences. The department was located in the School of Health Professions, for which Atwater served as director from 1991 to 2003. In 1995, the exercise sciences portion of the department joined the Department of Physiology, bringing with it the undergraduate major that had been created in 1991. From 1995 until the time of her retirement in 2003, Atwater served as associate head of physiology and director of the physiology undergraduate major program.
She taught classes in the biomechanics of human movement, tissue biomechanics, functional kinesiology, video analysis of human movement, and careers in health-care professions.
Her research portfolio includes grants from the National Institutes of Health, the National Science Foundation and the U.S. Olympic Committee.
Atwater traces her early interest in physiology and biomechanics to her love of sports. The biomechanics of synchronized swimming and of baseball pitching were among the topics of major focus in her research.
In addition to serving on the Faculty Senate and on several university faculty committees, she also was appointed to the Arizona Board of Regents Commission on the Status of Women, from 1989 to 1991.
Nicholas Delamere, PhD, has been head of the Department of Physiology since coming to the UA in 2006, after 20 years at the University of Louisville, researching glaucoma and other age-related eye diseases.
“It’s been a challenge to keep pace with the growth of this program,” Delamere says. “We teach big classes – but it’s good to be wanted.”
Asked to comment on Atwater’s contributions to physiology, Delamere does not hesitate.
“Betty has just been an amazing university scholar,” he says. “She goes back a long way with this university and she’s guided this program with a feeling of personal ownership, and it comes across. The students get to know this and the faculty get to know this because they can tell when someone is personally engaged in their work; that it’s something of greater importance than just a job.
“I’d walk barefoot across broken glass for Betty Atwater.”
Photo: Betty Atwater and Nick Delamere