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Deaths cripple Ala. college department

The bullet police say Amy Bishop fired into fellow college professor Joseph Leahy's head has left him in a neuro-intensive care unit, where tubes and a maze of medical technology help sustain him.
Image: Amy Bishop
Amy Bishop is taken into custody by Huntsville, Ala., police Friday in connection with three fatal shootings on the University of Alabama in Huntsville campus.Dave Dieter / Huntsville Times via AP
/ Source: The Associated Press

The bullet police say Amy Bishop fired into fellow college professor Joseph Leahy's head has left him in a neuro-intensive care unit, where tubes and a maze of medical technology help sustain him.

The microbiologist's fight to recover mirrors the challenge facing the biology department where he and Bishop taught at the University of Alabama-Huntsville, the scene of a mass shooting six days ago that claimed the lives of the department head and two other professors.

Leahy, another professor and a staff member were wounded Feb. 12, when authorities allege Amy Bishop pulled a pistol at a faculty meeting and started shooting her colleagues.

With three professors dead, two wounded and one charged with murder, "our department has pretty much been cut in half," said Leland Cseke, a faculty member. "It's devastating."

And the other half of the 14-member department is traumatized; most of them witnessed the attack up close.

Trying to cope with loss
Remaining department members have been meeting in small groups, said one of them, John Shriver. They're trying to help each other cope with the loss of Maria Ragland Davis, Gopi Podila and Adriel Johnson, all 52 and holding doctorates in the field.

Staff assistant Stephanie Monticciolo was hospitalized in critical condition Thursday. Another faculty member, Luis Cruz-Vera, was shot in the chest and has been released.

The devastated department takes an early step in its recovery Thursday as the family of Podila, the biology chairman who was born in India, holds a public visitation and a smaller funeral for close friends and relatives. Services for Johnson and Davis are to follow Friday and Saturday, and the school plans an evening memorial for all the victims Friday.

Bishop, an assistant professor, is accused of shooting all six in a small conference room. The Harvard-trained researcher and inventor was in her final year of teaching at the school after being denied tenure last April, but the motive for the shooting remains unclear. Podila had supported her tenure application.

Bishop, 44, remains jailed on one count of capital murder and three counts of attempted murder.

At a school respected for its academics, and a department recognized for its work in a city of NASA engineers and other high-tech industries, the shooting left students without teachers and administrators trying to regroup amid the mourning.

The university proudly notes its ranking by U.S. News & World Report among the 150 best national doctoral universities in the U.S., and the biology department is particularly well-regarded for its achievements in biotechnology, school spokesman Ray Garner said.

"These guys are doing some really good work," he said.

‘Always there for the students’
Podila was chair of the biological sciences department at UAH, where he began working in 2001 and did research involving plant biology and work that can be used in the development of biofuels. He was admired for his ability to not only run the department and "keep everybody happy," Shriver said, but also to continue doing important research, travel overseas on behalf of the department and still teach.

Davis had industry experience that set her apart from other faculty members who had more academic backgrounds, said another professor, Joseph Ng.

"The students just loved her. She always had a very nice demeanor, and she was always there for the students," he said.

Johnson was known for his sense of humor and students "flocked to him" because of his willingness to open up to them, said Florence Holland, an administrator at Auburn University who knew and worked with him.

A mentor for minority students, Johnson started at UAH in 1989 and was also involved with the school's Minority Graduate Student Association.

"He was always trying to encourage underrepresented groups to go into math and science and engineering," Holland said. "Some people, when they get to a certain level of success are like 'I have mine, you get yours,' but Dr. Johnson wasn't like that. He was very willing to work with students and just overall passionate about that."

UAH President David B. Williams said for now the school is concentrating on grieving. Work will begin soon to rebuild the department, he said, and several colleges in the state have offered teachers to help fill the gap in the meantime.

"The overwhelming response has just been enormous," Williams said.

Leahy remained in critical condition Thursday at Huntsville Hospital, though he already has shown signs of progress, according to a blog his family has been writing.

"Joe has been showing the most body movement/activity since the shooting, particularly on the left side," a recent posting reads. "Neurosurgeon used term 'purposeful' in describing the movements."