University News

Community remembers Thompson’s warm spirit

Mother of seven filled campus with music and inspiration, overhauled undergraduate advising

Senior Staff Writer
Friday, September 19, 2014

Reflecting on Marjorie Thompson ’74 PhD’79 P’02 P’07 P’09 P’12 P’14 P’16 this week, colleagues and friends repeatedly used a number of words and phrases: “Remarkable.” “Incredible.” “So dedicated to her students.” “A mother to everyone.” “A force to be reckoned with.”

Remembered as an alacritous professor, talented artist and fierce advocate for undergraduate advising, Thompson touched the lives of countless undergraduates and colleagues during her four decades at Brown.

After declaring medical leave for the fall semester, Thompson died Monday after a four-year battle with cancer, Professor of Biology and longtime friend Ken Miller ’70 P’02 said. “In typical Marge Thompson style she never let on, never let up, never stopped doing the work that she loved until she was forced to.”


An advising exemplar

After completing both an undergraduate degree and a doctorate degree at Brown, Thompson began her journey toward reforming the undergraduate biology curriculum in 1980, Miller said.

“Her passion for supporting students, her enthusiasm for science, her commitment to Brown (were) unsurpassed,” he added.

The University has an unusual structure for its biology departments, Miller said. Though no specific biology degrees exist at Brown — in botany or zoology, for example — there are six different biology departments “each with (its) own chair, (its) own interests,” he added. In order to unite those six departments, Thompson established the Biology Curriculum Committee, comprising a representative from each biology department and — at her insistence — three undergraduate representatives, Miller said.

As an adviser, Thompson personally worked with hundreds of biology and independent concentrators every year.

“I would come up with excuses to go talk to her,” Elena Suglia ’15 said. “Everyone who came in contact with her just got this sense that she was totally passionate about helping others at Brown.”

“She had a wickedly sharp sense of humor,” Miller said. “She could not only be funny and make you laugh, she could make jokes with a point, and that’s a rare skill.”

Reid Secondo ’16, a member of the BCC, said his favorite memory of Thompson was when he went to see her during his first year with questions on gonad development for the vertebrate embryology course she was teaching.

“She said, ‘You know what, Reid, you are like the indifferent gonad. Like the indifferent gonad, there will be different signals and mechanisms thrown your way that will force you to bend and twist and change but at the end of the day, you have to decide what you’re doing and what gonad you want to be. And you have to be happy, and take ownership in your path,’” Secondo recalled. “‘As long as you are content with who you are and what you want to do with your life, you should be a proud gonad.’”

The mentorship Thompson provided did not stop when students graduated. Lily Chan ’13, a former BCC member, said Thompson was not only dedicated but “very intense, … very honest and very direct.” Thompson continued to mentor her even after she left Brown, Chan added.

“Everyone knew that she always had her Blackberry with her, and everyone knew that she replied to emails instantly. No one knew how she did it,” Chan said. “I think that was how I was able to keep depending on her for support even after I left Brown, because I knew she was there, both in person and over email.”

“She was absolutely tireless in terms of setting up office hours, staying late, helping people out with special projects. It was just incredible,” Miller said.


‘A Renaissance woman’

Thompson was multifaceted and modest, finding success in her career as a talented musician and artist.

Driving once with Jody Hall, manager of undergraduate laboratories, Thompson asked Hall if she liked the music playing in the car. Hall responded that she did, and Thompson replied, “‘That’s me’ in her non-showy way,” Hall recalled.

“She was very modest about it,” Hall said, even though Thompson had just made her first recording and wanted to share it.

“All the things this woman does and now she’s adding this on top,” Hall remembered thinking at the time.

When he first learned Thompson was taking guitar lessons in the ’80s, Miller said, he thought it was nice that she was picking up a hobby. It was not until a couple years later, when Miller tried to schedule a meeting with Thompson and she responded that she was on the road opening for Richie Haven, that he realized what a talented performer she had become, he said.

In addition to her music, Thompson created the jewelry company Cellular Fun, where she handmade “biologically correct” pins that depicted cells like macrophages and epithelial cells, according to its website.

“She was a Renaissance woman for sure,” Suglia said. “She did a million different things, and she did them all with unparalleled finesse.”


Family and beyond

While several students said Thompson cultivated a sense of family in the biology department, she did not stop there. A mother of seven, Thompson was always willing to open her arms and welcome others into her home.

One year, unable to return to Louisiana for Thanksgiving break, James Young ’16 accompanied Thompson’s son Griffin home for Thanksgiving dinner. Young said Thompson came downstairs from answering emails to embrace him warmly and welcome him.

“They’re a very quiet family, but they have a very loud influence on their peers,” Young said. “It’s interesting to note that unique paradox.”

Young added that Thompson quietly slipped away after dinner to continue answering emails from students.

Hall said Thompson “absorbed” both Hall and her son into her home for nearly 10 years, adding that she is “grateful (for that) on a daily basis.”

“She was a great mom,” Miller said. “You can see that in her kids — how much they love each other, and how much they love their mom.


‘She was a force’

Despite her 5 foot 2 inch frame, Thompson leaves a large legacy behind. Katherine Smith, interim associate dean of biology, said she remembers “being shocked” at Thompson’s tiny stature the first time they met in person. “In my mind, I had always envisioned her being a giant of a person, 6 feet tall and very large, because that was her personality and that was her power on campus. She was a force.”

“I’m filling enormous shoes,” added Smith, who assumed the role Sept. 1. “Every day brings something completely new and challenging, but I’m enjoying it because I feel like I’m helping to continue to steer the ship that she has captained.”

Miller said he will remember Thompson primarily for the joy she brought to her work and to the workplace.

“I don’t think (she) could have imagined being anywhere else, or doing anything other than what she did,” Miller added. “And she did it out of joy. Not everybody at a university does what they do out of pure, unadulterated joy like Marge Thompson did.”


-With additional reporting by Isobel Heck and Caroline Kelly

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