The Southwestern University Alumni Association has selected Professor of Biology Romi Burks as the 2019 recipient of their Ms. Homecoming Award. The Ms. Homecoming Award is presented to one faculty member each year as a token of affection and respect of former students.  

Laura Thornton ’09 shares, Burks “was one of the most committed faculty to engage as many students as possible in research, which provides a tremendous experience and leverage for those seeking out graduate education.” Burks is known across the alumni body as being enthusiastic about her work and is appreciated for all that she does in the classroom, the lab, and in the community. “Her dedication to her research students is unparalleled and the crazy successes of the students who graduate out of her lab attest to that. She is also always willing to try new things,” says Professor of Anthropology Melissa Johnson. Burks has presented work at national conferences with SU students, graduated and current, as well as publish countless research papers. 

Burks received a bachelor of arts in English and in biology from Loyola University Chicago in 1995 before going on to receive her doctorate in ecology from Notre Dame University in 2000. Soon after, Burks began teaching biology at SU in 2003. Since then she has worked as a cochair for the SU Animal Behavior Program, a cochair for the SU Environmental Studies Program, and as of 2017, she is a chairperson for the Southwestern Biology Department. Furthermore, during her time at Southwestern, she has garnered multiple awards including the Senior Faculty Award for Excellence in Scholarship and Creative Works in 2017. Most recently, Burks has been selected to lead Southwestern’s London Program in the Fall of 2020. 

Visitors to Burks’ office in the Fondren-Jones Science Center see her her work on display: her love of research and teaching, her scholarship with apple snails, and of course, her passion for chocolate. One thing many people may not know about Burks is that she is a chocolate aficionado. Burks shares, “I call my interest in chocolate ‘my professional hobby,’ and it’s been a great choice.” Burks goes beyond loving chocolate in ways that only a true liberal arts professor could, by bringing it into the classroom, teaching classes such as “The Science of Chocolate” and “Does Chocolate have a Dark Side?” Burks’ deep understanding of chocolate has allowed her to travel the world, judging the finals of an international chocolate competition, lecturing on chocolate, visiting museums, and more. Luckily, she has been given the opportunity to share that expertise here at Southwestern as well, as she has given multiple presentations to Southwestern students, alumni, and parents about the wonders of chocolate.  

One of Burks’ most important contributions to Southwestern and its students is her undergraduate lab where she studies apple snails, which are an invasive species in Texas. Burks has nothing but pride and appreciation for the undergraduate students that conduct research in her lab. She says, “Students make up my lab community and I consider them real contributors to the research. I’ve been very fortunate to have incredible students.” And of course, the feelings are mutual. Current students Lauren Muskara ’20 and Esther Nyaeberi ’21 explained that Burks has been instrumental in each of their Southwestern careers as a professor, mentor, and friend. Furthermore, Matt Barnes ’06 states that Burks “is thoughtful, enthusiastic, and organized in the classroom, but where her engagement and passion are most on display is in her interactions with her research students. The Burks Lab has been a thriving research enterprise for over a decade, providing high-impact learning experiences for students who may be interested in research.”

For her position as professor of biology, but also for the love she has for Southwestern and its students, the Southwestern University Alumni Association presented Dr. Romi Burks with the 2019 Ms. Homecoming Award.