Donors Ron and Diane Smith Support Research Opportunities in Quantitative Biology

Ron and Diane Smith in the stairwell beside helix
Ron and Diane Smith have given $175,000 to the college to establish the Dr. Ronald J. Smith P ’11 and Robyn L. Smith ’11 Quantitative Biology Research Award. The award will support undergraduate research experiences outside the classroom in the cutting-edge, interdisciplinary field. (Sasha Bakhter / UC Davis)

Donors Ron and Diane Smith Support Research Opportunities in Quantitative Biology

For donors Ron and Diane Smith, giving to UC Davis is a natural combination of two passions: their love for and pride in family, and their deep interest in lifelong learning and sharing knowledge.

Most recently, these two interests have converged to inspire a gift with very personal roots. In December, the Smiths gave $175,000 to the College of Biological Sciences to establish the Dr. Ronald J. Smith P ’11 and Robyn L. Smith ’11 Quantitative Biology Research Award, named for Ron and the Smiths’ daughter. The award will support undergraduate research experiences outside the classroom in the cutting-edge, interdisciplinary field of quantitative biology.

“Quantitative techniques are integral to the modern biologist’s success,” said Mark Winey, dean of the College of Biological Sciences. “With their latest gift, Ron and Diane Smith, who have long supported our college both philanthropically and through volunteer involvement the CBS Campaign Leadership Council, will help ensure each CBS student is prepared for a 21st-century career.”

A Commitment to Lifelong Learning Opportunities

The most recent gift, Ron and Diane say, was motivated in part by a time when the Smiths were struggling students at Gettysburg College in Pennsylvania, where they met. Ron was working his way through school, and a fortuitous paid internship at NASA set him on the track of scientific research. There, he identified and solved a technical problem that had eluded NASA scientists. “I realized that I could hang with these NASA scientists, and that convinced me to apply to graduate school,” says Ron.

That the NASA opportunity was paid, when so many summer internships and research opportunities are not, was a big deal, notes Diane. “Summer research can boost students’ confidence, give them skills, introduce them to a whole new world, and open their eyes to what's possible and what they can do,” says Diane. We both came from blue-collar, working-class families, and we were the first in our families to go to college. So of course, we want to support that opportunity for other people.”

Ron went on to earn a Ph.D. in physics from the University of Minnesota, and enjoyed a long career at Intel, where he played an important part in the semiconductor industry. Diane, for her part, earned an advanced degree in library science at San Jose State University. Their background, and their commitment to lifelong learning, inspired them to support their alma mater and then their children’s universities. When their son Justin, a molecular biologist, graduated from UC San Diego, they established a scholarship in his name. At UC Davis, they established the Robyn L. Smith Family Scholarship in honor of their daughter, who graduated with a degree in Evolution, Ecology, and Biodiversity, to support high-achieving CBS students who have financial need.

“Higher education for us has been the golden ticket to realizing the American dream,” says Ron. “And we wanted to continue that for others.”

Forging Fresh Interdisciplinary Paths

Ron, who serves as vice chair of the CBS Campaign Leadership Council, proudly identifies as a lifelong learner and has completed more than 100 college courses in the past four years. Visits to Davis research facilities, from Lake Tahoe to Bodega Bay to the veterinary school—“and don’t forget wine and beer tasting!” says Ron, laughing—showed the Smiths the broad range of research happening at Davis.

Quantitative biology, a relatively new, interdisciplinary initiative on campus, was, for the Smiths, a perfect marriage of Ron’s interests in tech and data and his children’s work in biological sciences. “Quantitative biology is a very new area and applies the kind of technology that Ron worked in for his whole career to the biological sciences,” says Diane.

Ron sees the combination of the two as a promising path to beneficial knowledge, harnessing the power of big data to better our scientific understanding of complex biological processes. “Generally speaking, people who are in the data sciences, they don't know anything about biology,” says Ron. “And the converse is also true: biologists don’t tend to know that much about the quantitative science. And the merger of the two is just incredibly powerful with a lot of potential.”

The Smiths hope that the new field of quantitative biology, which they have supported with donations since 2018, will pay big dividends for the future of scientific knowledge. It’s that wish, more than the desire for personal recognition, that motivates their giving. “It’s not so much that I care about whether my name is up in lights, because for one thing, when you have the last name Smith, it’s difficult to stand out from the crowd,” he says with a laugh. “I think about these gifts in terms of filling a need and trying to look towards the future.”

For the Smiths, the satisfaction of giving comes in knowing that they may be funding research initiatives that could benefit generations to come. “We are looking for a return on these gifts in the benefit to society, to the planet, to nature,” Ron says. “And I fully expect that will happen.”

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  • Kate Washington, Ph.D., is a freelance writer based in Sacramento and the author of Already Toast: Caregiving and Burnout in America. Her work has appeared in the New York TimesTIME and Sunset, among other publications.

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