Washington University to award four honorary degrees at 148th Commencement

One was named among the 50 most important women in science by Discover magazine; another made Time magazine’s list of the 100 most influential leaders in the world.

One is a pioneer and leader in mapping and sequencing the human genome; another guided Washington University’s Olin Business School through a significant period of growth, helping it become a leading, nationally recognized business school.

The four notable people selected to receive honorary degrees during Washington University’s 148th Commencement on May 15 all stand out in their respective fields.

During the ceremony, which will begin at 8:30 a.m. in Brookings Quadrangle, the university also will bestow more than 2,700 academic degrees on more than 2,600 students.

Wendy Kopp, chief executive officer and founder of Teach For America, will deliver the Commencement address and receive an honorary doctor of humanities degree.

The other honorary degree recipients and their degrees are:

• Robert L. Virgil Jr., Ph.D., emeritus dean of the Olin Business School, emeritus professor of accounting and emeritus trustee of Washington University, doctor of laws.

• Robert H. Waterston, M.D., Ph.D., the William H. Gates III Endowed Chair in Biomedical Sciences and chairman of the Department of Genome Sciences at the University of Washington in Seattle, doctor of science; and

• Patty Jo Watson, Ph.D., the Edward Mallinckrodt Distinguished University Professor of Anthropology Emerita in Arts & Sciences at Washington University, doctor of humane letters.


Twenty years ago, Kopp proposed, in her Princeton University undergraduate thesis, the creation of Teach For America — the national corps of outstanding college graduates who commit to teach for at least two years in some of the country’s highest-need schools and become lifelong leaders in pursuit of educational excellence and equity.

As a 21-year-old, Kopp raised $2.5 million of start-up funding, hired a skeleton staff and launched a grass-roots recruitment campaign. During Teach For America’s first year in 1990, 500 men and women, selected from 2,500 applicants, began teaching in six low-income communities across the country.

Since then, more than 20,000 individuals have participated in Teach For America, impacting the lives of approximately 3 million students. Teach For America has provided more teachers for low-income communities than any other organization.

Teach For America’s 14,000 alumni are also working to expand educational opportunity and to address the underlying causes of educational inequity from a variety of sectors. A significant number of alumni hold leadership roles in education — as veteran teachers, principals, district leaders and even superintendents — in high-need regions across the country.

In 1994, Time magazine recognized Kopp as one of the 40 most promising leaders under 40; in 2006, U.S. News & World Report named her one of America’s best leaders; and in 2008, Time named her one of the world’s 100 most influential leaders.

She holds a bachelor’s degree from Princeton, where she participated in the undergraduate program of the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs.


Virgil arrived at Washington University five decades ago as an MBA student. Today, as emeritus trustee, dean and professor, he continues to serve WUSTL in numerous roles since his “retirement” in 1993. Most recently, he chaired the Campaign Committee for the Danforth University Center, which opened last August.

His second career as a partner in the Edward Jones investment firm followed a distinguished career at the Olin School, where students elected him “Teacher of the Year” nine times.

An equally gifted administrator, Virgil’s tenure as dean marked a period of vibrant growth for Olin with an endowment surge from $200,000 to $75 million and the construction of Simon Hall.

He initiated the executive master of business administration and expanded the experiential learning programs that remain hallmarks of the school today.

In addition to leadership roles with multiple civic and educational concerns, including The Magic House, City Academy and Harris-Stowe State University, Virgil served as a director and chairman of the Federal Reserve Bank of St. Louis and chair of the Consortium for Graduate Study in Management.

He has been recognized for his service to Washington University with numerous honors, including the William Greenleaf Eliot Society’s “Search” Award in 2001 and a Distinguished Alumni Award from Olin.

He and his wife, Gerry, received the school’s Dean’s Medal in 1996 and upon his retirement, friends and alumni established an endowed scholarship in the couple’s name. In 2004, friends established the Geraldine J. and Robert L. Virgil Professorship in Accounting and Management, which is held by Mahendra R. Gupta, Ph.D., Olin’s dean.


Waterston is internationally known for his pioneering contributions to the field of genomics. In the 1990s, while at Washington University, he, together with John Sulston, Ph.D., at the Sanger Centre in England, painstakingly unraveled the genetic code of the tiny, transparent worm C. elegans, marking the first time scientists had sequenced the complete DNA of any organism larger than a single cell.

The team’s success paved the way for the Human Genome Project, the deciphering of the 3 billion chemical units of DNA that contain the instructions for human life.

With his expertise in large-scale DNA sequencing, Waterston played a pivotal role in getting the ambitious project off the ground, and his laboratory, along with the Sanger Centre, contributed more than half of the data to delineate the human genetic code.

They went on to generate the sequence of the laboratory mouse, the chimpanzee and other genomes.

A native of Detroit, Mich., Waterston earned a bachelor’s degree in engineering in 1965 from Princeton University and medical and doctoral degrees from the University of Chicago in 1972.

Waterston joined WUSTL’s School of Medicine faculty in 1976. He was named the James S. McDonnell Professor and chairman of the Department of Genetics and director of the Genome Sequencing Center in 1993.

In this capacity, he established WUSTL as a leader in large-scale genome sequencing, one that garnered a reputation for producing data at a significant rate and with a high degree of accuracy.


Watson, considered one of the world’s leading experts on cave archaeology and a pioneer in the fields of agricultural origins and ethnoarchaeology, has shaped the way archaeology is conducted.

During her distinguished 55-year career, Watson has done groundbreaking fieldwork on agricultural origins in both the Near East and North America.

She is credited with defining and pioneering ethnoarchaeology — the branch of archaeology that studies contemporary societies to aid understanding of archaeological remains left by ancient peoples.

Watson developed a technique for flotation of archaeological remains to create a new method of retrieving charred plant remains from sites studied. The plant evidence collected in this way has revolutionized understanding of the pattern and timing of plant domestication in many parts of the world.

She began her career excavating prehistoric sites in Iraq, Iran and Turkey, and then shifted her primary focus to North America, where her work has focused on artifacts left by prehistoric people who explored and mined Salts Cave, Kentucky, a portion of the world’s longest cave system in Mammoth Cave National Park.

Her work in Salts Cave was instrumental in defining pre-maize agriculture for the Woodland period of eastern North America.

In Watson’s more recent studies, she continues to focus on the subsistence, technology and economy of these early people.

Watson earned a master’s degree in 1956 and doctoral degree in 1959, both in anthropology, from the University of Chicago. She joined the WUSTL faculty in 1969 and twice served as chair of the Department of Anthropology.