The Professor 

UR's provost, now beginning her second year, talks of fishing, fireflies and building a world-renowned research center.

One of the biggest is vague, as yet, but reflects Aprille's interest in establishing "a focus of civic engagement" at the university. She wants to get students to take the knowledge they absorb on the college's quiet, secluded campus and put it to work in Richmond and beyond.

With this in mind, she and other university administrators are talking about creating a Richmond Research Institute: a nationally known research center where faculty and students would work in tandem to collect and analyze data on societal and political problems.

University-sponsored think tanks are nothing new, Aprille says — but rarely, if ever, do they allow undergraduates to participate. Would people take the institute seriously if they knew a bunch of 18- to 20-year-olds were helping conduct research there? Absolutely, Aprille says. "The faculty will lead," she says. "We aren't pushing students out to go drum up the work."

The concept for the institute was "lurking when I got here," Aprille says, but she emphasizes that it is, at this point, only words on paper. If the plan comes to fruition, however, one possible home for the institute would be the vast and empty Reynolds-Alcoa building that the university acquired in September 2001. Many have wondered what on earth UR will do with the 250,000-square-foot structure. Aprille headed a brainstorming task force on the issue, though she says she told the university, "I'm just a biology professor. What do I know about real estate?"

The planned research center may be a good fit — "but to do that," she says, "we will need tenants for that building who share our sense of mission." Whether the institute takes shape, that mission will remain, she says: integrating education and campus so that "students shouldn't feel like they learn in the classroom and then walk out the door and that's it."

Aprille concurs that "it might be simpler to just get a bunch of big-deal faculty … together and let them solve the problems." But, she points out, that would be ignoring UR's educational mission. Reaching out into the community may help change the perception that the school is a lofty "ivory tower," she says, far removed from the city of Richmond and its everyday troubles. "The dream is that it would become a nationally known center."

It's a lofty vision — and Aprille has much more on her agenda. In addition to her daily duties of overseeing faculty hiring, tenure and relationships with administrators, she's working to tighten UR's environmental practices, as well as reviewing the core curriculum and adjusting it so students learn not only about their particular interests, but "the breadth of human endeavor."

Aprille isn't the desk-bound type, but rather "an outstanding scholar-administrator," as university President William E. Cooper calls her. Teaching, Aprille says, will always be her calling. "I ended up in administration, but I consider that my highest purpose," she says. It's easy to see the professor in her. Aprille speaks crisply and precisely, like someone who has explained photosynthesis 200 times before and still has the patience to go over it again.

At Tufts University, where Aprille spent 24 years as a professor, then vice provost, she studied human metabolic diseases and mitochondria, the energy-producing elements of cells. She also performed research on bioluminescence in fireflies. The latter work she just couldn't give up when she moved to Richmond, she says, and so she has set up a "tiny lab" for herself on campus.

One wonders how she has time for research with her other endeavors. "I don't," she says. Still, after Aprille lists all the projects going on in her first full year at the university, she pauses. "It seems like I've done more than that," she says thoughtfully. "I'm so exhausted." S

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