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Rewarding a lifetime of research

Regents' Professor Robert Page honored for work on honeybee genetics

Robert Page
February 03, 2016

Robert Page has ascended to the top of his field and earned the highest faculty honor in the state.

Not bad for a man who started his academic career without a plan.

Page, an expert in honeybee genetics and the founding director of the School of Life Sciences and the former provost at Arizona State University, will be inducted as a Regents' Professor on Thursday — an honor for those professors who have made pioneering contributions in research and who have earned national and international recognition for their accomplishments. He is Foundation Chair in Life Sciences in the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences.

“It was purely accidental. I had no plan,” Page (pictured above) said of his start.

Page, who started a neighborhood “biology club” as a child, intended to be a biologist while he was an undergraduate at San Jose State University. Then he took an entomology course as an elective and found it fascinating. So he took another and another and ended up changing his major. He wrote a paper on the mating habits of a rare beetle that was published in a journal while he was still an undergraduate.

After earning a degree in entomology, and with some GI BillPage lost his draft deferment as a freshman and spent four years in the Army, attending Officer Candidate School, before resuming his education. He credits his military training for his leadership skills. benefits remaining, he got into the University of California at Davis, outside of Sacramento. It was the only school he applied to.

“I showed up as a graduate student without a real clue,” he said.

At UC-Davis, he found mentorship, inspiration and friendship with four professorsRobert Metcalf, Harry Laidlow, Timothy Prout and Norman Gary (who also worked as a “bee wrangler” in movies)., who were experts in the genetics, behavior and evolution of honeybees.

Page worked in the bee lab at UC-Davis as a teaching assistant and became fascinated with the social behavior of the insects.

“I merged it all together, and that became what I did and still defines what I do today,” said Page, who has authored more than 230 research papers and articles about the genetics and evolution of social organization, sex determination and division of labor in honeybee societies.

After starting his academic career as an assistant professor at Ohio State University, Page returned to UC-Davis, where he became a full professor within five years, eventually becoming chair of the department of entomology.

He loved the bee lab and teaching, but the complexities of academic administration were challenging.

“I felt like I was a custodian as an administrator, and that I didn’t really have the ability to do things that would fundamentally change the university,” he said. “I had ideas, but I couldn’t get them advanced because of the stationary inertia I had to overcome.”

So when he was recruited to become the founding director of the School of Life Sciences at ASU, he was hesitant. He visited the campus, talked to students and met President Michael Crow.

“He was enthusiastic and had all these great ideas,” Page said. “I told my wife, ‘It’s different there. I could really do something to make a difference.’

“But then I said, ‘Why would I want to go to ASU?’ And she said ‘Why not?’ So I competed for the job.”

And he got it. In 2004, he was named founding director of the School of Life Sciences, where he launched the university’s first fully integrated, interdisciplinary academic unit. He calls it his “pride and joy.” In 2011, Page became dean of the College of Liberal Arts and Sciences, a position he held for two years. And although he’s a scientist, he’s especially happy that he was able to boost the humanities faculty.

“I implemented programs for humanities faculty to recognize that they’re the heart and soul of the university,” he said. “They can get lost in the shuffle of the drive for certain kinds of metrics by which universities are measured.

“The truth is that they are the intellectual soul of the university.”

Page was named provost, the university’s top academic official, in 2014. Health issues forced him to give up the post about 18 months later.

“I feel that I left a lot undone — things I felt passionate about. But on the other hand, I had responsibilities to my health.”

Over the years, he found that ASU is not mired in the same inertia that stalls innovation at other institutions. “I was a real builder here at ASU, not just a custodian.”

Page calls the Regents' Professor honor “icing on the cake” and is proud of the recognition of his research.

Through the decades of administration, Page has maintained his work with the honeybees. In 2013, he released the book “The Spirit of the Hive: The Mechanisms of Social Evolution,” summarizing his lifetime of research.

“When I came to ASU, I said, ‘I can’t come without a bee lab’ so they built me one on the Polytechnic Campus,” he said.

Much of Page’s research is on the biology of bees in the field, but he enjoys the buzzing in the lab as well, calling it “a place to escape.”

He still teaches a course in the bee lab at Poly, which he has done continuously over the years.

“I teach the students fundamental biology and behavior of bees and how we take that knowledge and change their behavior to benefit us, so we can profit from their honey and the pollination services they provide.

“I’ve turned a lot of kids on to bees.”

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