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Another Campus Grieves

February 15, 2010

Another college campus has been shattered by a mass shooting, this time involving a professor with an apparently troubled background.

Authorities in Huntsville, Ala., on Saturday charged Amy Bishop, an assistant professor of biological sciences at the University of Alabama's campus there, with killing three colleagues and wounding two others and a staff member after opening fire with a handgun at a regularly scheduled departmental meeting Friday afternoon.

The facts in the case are, as is often so in such situations, fluid. Early news reports suggested (incorrectly, it turned out) that Bishop had just learned that she had been denied tenure, leading to speculation that she had cracked under that pressure. But while university officials acknowledged Saturday that Bishop had been denied tenure, they said she had found that out 10 months ago and that her status was not on the agenda of Friday's regularly scheduled meeting of the biology faculty. The effect of the tenure case on her state of mind, and its contribution to her alleged crime, is a matter of intense debate.

Other developments suggested a troubled background for the apparent perpetrator. Her arrest in Alabama prompted news reports early Saturday revealing that she had killed her brother in 1986 in what was characterized then as an "accidental" shooting. But by late that afternoon, within 24 hours of the Huntsville massacre, police officials in Braintree, Mass., were presenting a very different picture of the 1986 shooting, implying that the investigation may have been cut short for political reasons.

And Sunday evening, The Boston Globe reported that Bishop and her husband had been questioned in a 1993 attempted bombing of a former colleague of hers at Harvard Medical School -- a crime never solved.

The bizarre and uncertain circumstances surrounding the alleged shooter were almost beside the point for those who grieved over the victims. The dead were three faculty members in Alabama-Huntsville's biological sciences department: Gopi Podila, 53, professor and chair of the department, and two associate professors, Adriel Johnson, 53, and Maria Ragland Davis, 52.

Two other faculty members, Luis Cruz Vera and Joseph Leahy, and a staff member in the department, Stephanie Monticciolo, were wounded in the attack. Bishop stands accused of capital murder.

The university held a private prayer service for members of the campus community on Sunday. UAH officials called off classes for this week, though administrative offices will be open and counseling services widely available.

Who Is Amy Bishop?

Bishop joined the faculty at Alabama-Huntsville in 2003, after getting her Ph.D. in genetics from Harvard University and teaching at the university's medical school. Her university Web page lists her research interests as neurobiology and neuroengineering; she has published in the Journal of Neurochemistry and the Integrative Journal of General Medicine, and taught such courses as Anatomy & Physiology 1 and 2 and introductory neuroscience. Local news reports, based on interviews with students and on publicly available student evaluations, described her as smart, conscientious, awkward and openly politically liberal. She and her husband, James Anderson, have four children.

Bishop and Anderson developed an up-to-date alternative to the petri dish that enables researchers to test drug interactions and other effects on human cells in a life-like environment. The innovation won third place (and $25,000) in a 2007 venture capital competition sponsored by Alabama-Huntsville. The product, now known as InQ, was the basis for the creation of a company, Prodigy Biosystems, that is now incubated in a university-affiliated research farm, Prodigy said in a news release Saturday. The same news release also expressed the company's condolences to the victims.

Anderson works at Prodigy, but Bishop, while on the company's board, "chose to remain a full time academic at UAHuntsville," the company said in its statement. Prodigy's CEO, Dick Reeves, said via e-mail Sunday that the company had removed her from its board upon her arrest. "While she remains innocent until proven guilty, it appears certain she will not be able to fulfill her duties as a Prodigy Biosystems director going forward," he said.

Huntsville's president, David B. Williams, heralded Bishop's discovery on his blog in November 2008, citing it as representative of the significant role that research institutions like UAH are to have in the city's and region's economic future.

Technology transfer success aside, indications are that Bishop was among the many junior professors who were unable to successfully maneuver the tenure process. University officials told The Huntsville Times that Bishop had been turned down for tenure in April 2009, and that her appeal had been denied months ago. She was clearly facing the end of her six-year career at Alabama-Huntsville; how much of a factor that played in what happened Friday has been, and is likely to continue to be, intensely debated.

"I do know it was a source of great anxiety for her," said Reeves.

Accounts of what happened on the Huntsville campus have been rendered much more fully elsewhere. But at a few minutes before 4 p.m., as a meeting of the biology department was reportedly winding down in the university's Shelby Center for Science and Technology, Bishop allegedly opened fire with a handgun, shooting half of the 12 people in the room before the weapon jammed. According to police officials in Huntsville, she disposed of the unlicensed gun in a women's room on a lower floor of the building and was arrested outside it. She was reportedly waiting there for her husband, whom she had called after the shooting, to pick her up.

Anderson was taken in for questioning as a "person of interest" but has not been charged in relation to the shooting.

Without question the strangest, and potentially most disturbing, aspect of the situation involving Bishop arose in the hours after the Huntsville shooting, when officials in Braintree, Mass. (where Bishop grew up as the child of a Northeastern University art professor), resuscitated news that she had fatally shot her brother in 1986.

Initial reports focused on findings at the time that the shooting had been accidental, but quickly revealed a public disagreement among current and past police officials in Braintree over whether the shooting had actually been purposeful, and covered up.

 

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