Long-time Professor McCormick to Retire at End of Year

Caroline Hui

After 26 years of teaching at Oberlin, Biology Professor Catherine McCormick recently announced her retirement, effective at the end of the academic year. 

McCormick, who currently teaches Vertebrate Structure and Evolution, joined the Biology and Neuroscience departments at Oberlin in 1986. During her tenure at the College, she has published 10 scientific manuscripts, received research grants from the National Institutes of Health and the National Science Foundation and won the 2011 – 2012 Excellence in Teaching Award.

She and her husband, Biology and Neuroscience professor Mark Braford, who is also retiring at the end of the year, plan on spending a few more years in Oberlin to finish up scientific manuscripts before moving to Chapel Hill, North Carolina, where their oldest child lives.

“My husband and I decided this would be the right time for us as a couple to start phase two of our lives,” she said.

McCormick has been impressed with the quality of students during her time at Oberlin.

“I’ve always appreciated the very civil atmosphere that surrounds learning in this college,” McCormick said. “I didn’t expect such a dedicated group of students when I came here, nor did I know anything about the Honor Code. Teaching a group of students that really wants to learn and really appreciates your effort in teaching them, and knowing that they adhere to an honor code, has been a really pleasant aspect of my job.”

Professionally, McCormick is known for her research on the evolution of hearing and the anatomical foundation for sound localization in fishes.

McCormick was not always sure she would become a biologist. As a girl, she thought she would be a zookeeper.

“I grew up in the Bronx, a couple of blocks away from the Bronx Zoo, and my mom would take us there on the days there was free admission,” she said. “In the children’s zoo, they gave you a little emblem that you wore on your shirt, but they didn’t attach very well, so children were always losing them. I would collect them and wear them because I figured out a better way to attach them, and [I’d] be covered in them by the time I went home.”

However, by junior high, McCormick had changed trajectories.

“I had a very excellent eighth grade teacher for biology, and I felt very encouraged by the way she treated the whole class — including myself,” McCormick said. “I got the idea that maybe learning about and doing science rather than being a zookeeper was a way for me to go.”

McCormick went on to study biology at New York University. In college, her interest in teaching also came into focus.

“I think students deserve good teaching,” she said. “As a student, I understood the importance of having a good mentor to guide you through material that wouldn’t be as accessible if you just read the textbook yourself. I felt that no matter what kind of an institution I was in, I wanted to be a very good teacher, as good a teacher as I could be.” She is known for her eagerness to work with her students and get to know them in a one-on-one setting.

“She’s super helpful and understands that I have a lot of questions and is ready with answers all the time,” said College senior Jenny Van Etten, McCormick’s research assistant this year.

McCormick said her favorite kind of teaching is teaching students in the lab, whether it’s associated with a course or in a research lab.

“Students have been my collaborators for years, and I believe I’ve enjoyed working with them as much as they’ve appreciated having the opportunity to really understand what research is about.”

McCormick still keeps in contact with her former research assistants. When her most recent manuscript was published, she emailed Abigail Wallace, OC ’05, who helped McCormick research and write the paper.

“With research, she was a great mentor,” Wallace said. “She’s with you every step of the way but gives you space to do your thing at the same time. I never felt like I was being micromanaged, but if I needed anything at all she was always there.”

McCormick’s departure from teaching will be felt in Oberlin’s science program.

“I think she’s had a huge impact,” Van Etten said. “She’s so well-known in the neuroscience world and she’s been chair [of the department]. She’s helped students through student research and anybody who wants to go into animal behavior. I’m sad to see [her and Braford] go.”