Alumni News

Charting a Path to Public Health

Similar to how many artists describe their work as a calling, Dr. Robert Davis, MD, MPH ’79 always felt drawn to a career in public health.

University of Tennessee Health Science Center

Davis’s decision to pursue this path has led him to a robust career in biomedical informatics, which uses computer and information science to advance research in health education, public health, and patient care.

Currently, he is the governor’s chair and founding director of the University of Tennessee Health Science Center - Oak Ridge National Laboratory Center for Biomedical Informatics, where he studies the applications of big data in medicine.

His most recent research has studied preeclampsia, the dangerous high blood pressure pregnancy complication that is the leading cause of death for pregnant women. The American Journal of Human Genetics recently published Davis’s co-authored study, which identifies a gene believed to account for a significant fraction of preeclampsia cases in women of West African descent.

“I wanted to go to medical school from the very start because I wanted to go into public health. I figured before I did that, I should learn about the human body,” said Davis. “In retrospect, it seems odd that I never questioned my path, that everything was so straightforward. But nothing ended up dissuading me.”

From his first step onto campus, Davis’s experience at Bennington “fit like a glove.” He knew he wanted to attend college in the East, but he wasn’t sure where. After trips to Amherst, Swarthmore, and Haverford left him lukewarm, he visited Bennington.

“As soon as I drove onto campus, I thought, ‘Ah, done!’” said Davis. “It was completely intuitive, from the heart. It scared me a little bit, how fast that decision was made. But there’s something to that inner voice; when you know something is right, you shouldn’t let people talk you out of it.”

Davis, who originally hails from Los Angeles, attended Bennington to study biology. He enjoyed the campus’s physical beauty and the stark contrast it provided to his upbringing in the city. As he made his daily walk into campus from his residence in North Bennington, he loved observing the changing seasons.

“Before I got to Bennington, I’d never really seen snow before,” said Davis. “I loved going skating in the pond in the middle of winter, and I’d spend many nights here listening to the bullfrogs around that pond.”

In addition to studying cell biology, genetics, and microbiology, Bennington’s flexible curriculum allowed Davis to dabble in other subjects.

“I enjoyed the exposure to a wide range of teachers here,” said Davis. “The two disciplines that I studied that weren’t science were literature and history. I also took some music classes with Milford Graves, but I didn’t cause anyone to suffer by watching me dance!”

Through his Field Work Term (FWT) internships, Davis narrowed down his future career prospects, in part by process of elimination.

“FWT was a remarkably good thing for the College to have us do because it burst a lot of my bubbles about working,” said Davis.

Over various FWTs, Davis worked for a lawyer, a Vermont farmer, and a solar panel company, none of which suited him the way he thought they might.

“I had all these dreams about what I wanted to do, but when you get out into the world, it’s like, ‘Holy mackerel!’” said Davis. “So these FWTs were helpful experiences that exposed me to some things that, frankly, just weren’t a good fit.”

However, an internship at the San Diego Zoo helped Davis expand his network, meet fellow scientists, and solidify his path to medical school at the University of California at San Diego.

“When I got to medical school, I was surprised how substantially better trained in biology I was than almost all of my colleagues,” said Davis. “It wasn’t because I was brighter; it was because my education was just better.”

The small class sizes at Bennington, maintained Davis, encourage hard work and thoughtful discussion from all students.

“A lot of other people in medical school were just good test takers, but at Bennington, you have to actually know your stuff,” said Davis. “Courses weren’t graded, but that means you had to engage with your teacher because there might be only three of you in the class. I was ready for that. I’d felt hidden all through high school, so I was ready to see if I could actually rise through college.”

For current students, whether they are trying to follow their own strong calling or uncover a path that might not seem clear cut, Davis advises them to remain unafraid of exploration.

“Your job as college students is to try a lot of different things,” said Davis. “You’ll probably end up not liking many of them, and that’s the point! It’s not failure to get into a course and realize you don’t like it that much. That’s the point of college.”

Instead of worrying about charting a perfect course, Davis encourages students to lean into the messy work of figuring out who they are.

“If you want to take poetry, take poetry. If you want to take dance, take dance. Don’t worry about what other people are saying,” said Davis. “For better or worse, I believe in being self-guided that way. Bennington is really good for that.”


By Natalie Redmond, Associate Writer