An Evergreen Legacy

UC Davis botany professor bequeaths critical gift to UC Davis library

Professor Norma J. Lang

UC Davis botany professor Norma J. Lang had two great passions: her students, and research. According to those who knew her best, she deeply valued the research process and was an inquisitive, focused woman who loved connecting with and mentoring students who shared her passion for plants, especially algae.

Upon her passing in March 2015, the award-winning botanist, who was called “a giant in our field” by the Phycological Society of America, left an unrestricted gift of nearly $900,000 to the UC Davis University Library. Together, her family and library staff decided that the best way to honor her was to use her gift to help students and support a love of learning.

Thus, Professor Lang’s gift has helped establish two key endowed funds: the Norma J. Lang Library Student Research Prize fund, and the Archives and Institutional Assets fund.

“What I enjoyed in my time with her was her absolute interest in learning,” said Andy Lang, Professor Lang’s nephew and trustee. “We wanted the funds to be the right balance between supporting students and supporting research—that felt true to who she was and what she valued. The funds we’ve established make a beautiful balance. If she looks down on us, I think she would be enormously pleased.”

The Professor Norma J. Lang Student Research Prize Endowment will fund an award recognizing undergraduate students whose research projects have been shown to make extensive use of the UC Davis University Library services, resources, and expertise, and advance the students’ understanding of the importance of the academic research process.  The prize will be awarded to one or more undergraduate students annually beginning in Spring 2017.

Lang’s nephew said that he hopes students who receive the Lang Research Prize keep his aunt’s core beliefs at heart in their educational pursuits. “I hope they’re seeking the support because of their love for learning. Because that’s what research is about — expanding our base of knowledge,” Lang said.

Lang’s UC Davis colleagues recall her as an enthusiastic professor who took her role as an educator very seriously. “She was devoted to the students in her classes and to students, both undergraduate and graduate, who worked in her research lab. She had high standards but was always willing to help,” said Professor Judy Jernstedt. “Although she could be gruff, she was very kind, generous and tender-hearted.”

Professor Lang at her retirement party in 1991

Lang spent nearly thirty years educating UC Davis students. She joined the faculty in 1963, and focused her work on blue green-algae. Her early research was funded by the National Science Foundation, and in 1968, she received a Guggenheim fellowship for sabbatical studies at the University of London. In 1969, Lang was awarded the Darbaker Prize by the Botanical Society of America for the best paper on microscopic algae published worldwide in the two previous years.

“Her early work was much acclaimed because she was among the first to use the transmission electron microscope (TEM) to study ultrastructure of algae and cyanobacteria,” said Jernstedt. “She and her students were known for the extremely high quality of their research and the diversity of algae they studied.”

Lang also was a leader in The Phycological Society of America. She played a vital role in the development of the organization, helping formulate bylaws, developing an endowment and overseeing the growth of the Journal of Phycology. She served as its president in 1975, following many years of volunteer leadership service with the organization.

After her retirement from UC Davis in 1991, Lang remained active with students through the adult literacy program of the Woodland Public Library. “That became a very important pastime for her, that she was taking under her wing young women who needed help with the English language,” said Andy Lang. “She never thought of it as a cultural or ethnic issue; she thought of it as helping women become more proficient in the society in which they were living.”

UC Davis’ library leadership worked closely with Andy Lang in deciding how Professor Lang’s gift would be allocated. According to University Librarian MacKenzie Smith, the Archives and Institutional Assets Endowed Fund will allow the library great opportunities in fulfilling an essential part of its strategic plan: increasing the overall impact of UC Davis research. This fund supports the Library’s efforts to steward UC Davis’ contributions to knowledge and society and preserve the University’s history.

Knowing Professor Lang’s abiding belief in research, using her gift to increase the impact of all research was fitting. “We want to celebrate Norma Lang and who she was,” said MacKenzie. “We will honor her and what she valued.”