In Memoriam

Donald Edward Parker
Professor Emeritus of Psychology

Our friend and former colleague, Donald (Don) Edward Parker passed away on January 17, 2016 in Seattle, Washington, following a fall in his garage. Don was the son of the late Kenneth Colwell Parker and Florence Wilson Parker. He was predeceased by his first wife, Mary Lynn Goodrich Parker, who passed away in 1986. He is survived by their four children: Katherine Parker Grichnik (James), Susan Parker Bodine (David), Geoffrey Goodrich Parker (Debra), and Rebecca Parker Brienen (Martin) and his two brothers, Robert and James. Don and Lynn’s children graduated from Talawanda High School in Oxford and went on to illustrious post graduate careers in medicine (Katherine), law (Susan), engineering (Geoffrey), and art history (Rebecca). Also surviving are his stepdaughter Shannon Ptacek and eight grandchildren: Matthew, Christopher, Steven, Sarah, Benjamin, Elizabeth, Alice, and Evalyn. Sharon, his wife of 28 years, now resides in San Diego, California.

Don was born in Chicago on April 6, 1936. He did his undergraduate work, majoring in psychology, at DePauw University (B.A. (cum laude, 1958) and earned his Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Princeton University in 1961 (Dissertation: “Vertical organization of the auditory cortex of the cat”). Prior to coming to Miami University, Don’s major work (ranked as Captain in the USAF) was as an experimental psychologist at the Aerospace Medical Research Laboratories at Wright Patterson A.F.B. in Dayton (1962-1965). He also had a significant experience as a Postdoctoral Fellow at the Max Planck Institute in Seewiesen, W. Germany. Don made life-long research associations at both Wright Patterson and in Germany. While at Wright Patterson, Don was a visiting lecturer in the psychology department at Miami (1963-65). He came to Miami (full time) as an Assistant Professor in 1966 and quickly rose through the Associate (1969) and Full Professor (l973) ranks. He was department chair from 1977-1980. He retired from Miami University in 1993 and from the University of Washington in 2011.

Don’s prodigious research began in 1962 with his first publication in the highly respected Journal of Auditory Research. It continued for another 50 years culminating in numerous journal articles, including a prestigious article describing the vestibular system in Scientific American. Don was a team player as illustrated by the many students with whom he shared authorship. In addition to his written work, Don regularly presented the results of his research to colleagues around the world. Indeed, Don was known and respected internationally by scientists in many countries.

Specializing on the vestibular system, an organ of the inner ear associated with the sense of balance, Don’s work was of special interest to the National Aeronautics and Space Agency (NASA) because disturbances in balance frequently afflict those who work in a weightless environment (i.e., astronauts). As a result, Don took leave of Miami from 1985 to 1987 where he served as Project Scientist at the Lyndon B. Johnson Space Center in Houston, TX to study and develop techniques to preadapt astronauts to a weightless environment prior to their entry into space. He returned to his full professorship at Miami where he maintained his association with NASA, work that continued well into his retirement years at the University of Washington where he worked with numerous graduate students (with whom he co-authored 15 publications). His curious mind led him to continue his scholarly work just prior to his death this year. That the quality of Don’s research was so highly regarded is further demonstrated by the fact that he received external funding throughout his career at Miami as well as at the University of Washington. Not only did he receive virtually continual support from governmental agencies, such as NASA, but also from a substantial set of private corporations, including as examples, Eastman Kodak and Siemens Corporation, among others. By the end of his career, he had garnered well over 1.5 million dollars of support.

Don was also feted for his research by receiving a host of honors, including the presidency of Sigma Xi at Miami; and membership on the National Research Council’s Committee on Hearing, Bioacoustics and Biomechanics; where he served as a member of the Executive Council. He was elected Researcher of the Year by Miami’s Sigma Xi in 1981. Eastman Kodak presented him the Silver Team Immersive Experience Project, USA Award in 2001.

Don served as an inspiring role model for many of us, especially during the early parts of our career. Richard Sherman, retired Professor of Psychology, captured the essence of Don’s influence in this way.

“Don’s intellect was an inspiration to me, not only because of his mastery of his own specialty but also because of his broad grasp of other topics. At departmental colloquia he seemed equally interested in presentations of research that were closely related to his own field as well as those that were far removed, and he nearly always asked insightful questions that linked the presentation to a broader context. I had the impression that visiting scientists giving the presentations were often quite impressed by his observations and stimulated to think about their research in a novel way.

Don’s enthusiasm for research was boundless and infectious. If he was asked about the general topic he was studying, he would give a somewhat technical answer involving motion perception and detection of orientation in space, and the role of the otoliths (small hard bits of tissue in the inner ear) in these processes. He would then smile and his eyes would twinkle as he added, ‘I study the rocks in people’s heads.’”

Miami’s reputation as a center for excellence in teaching at the undergraduate level has been embraced by faculty in the Psychology Department for many decades. No one better exemplified that focus better than Don, who was elected by the Psychology Club as Teacher of the Year in 1970 and nominated for Miami’s Educator of the Year on five separate occasions. He served as a role model especially for younger faculty, as well as graduate students with teaching responsibilities. He emphasized the importance of holding students to high standards while mentoring them in a way that elevated their likelihood of being successful in the classroom.

Don taught a wide variety of undergraduate courses at Miami including the very popular physiological psychology course that was fully enrolled and for which he received exceedingly high student evaluations. He also taught courses in Research Methods and Introductory Psychology, often as a co-instructor with younger faculty, as well as other undergraduate courses.

At the graduate level, he directed several doctoral dissertations and master’s theses. Two former Ph.D. students provide here some of their memories of how Don’s mentorship influenced their careers. The first of these is by Dr. Millard Reschke, Don’s first doctoral student at Miami. Dr. Reschke currently serves as NASA’s Chief of Neuroscience at the Space Center in Houston, TX:

“I first met Don following a Pro-Seminar lecture, given by an animated clinical faculty member, on Maslow’s concept of B-Cognition. I was complaining of the banality, yet originality of Maslow in the hallway to this redheaded, freckled-face kid who I believed was one of the seminar students. As it turned out the kid was Dr. Donald Parker, Air Force veteran, Princeton Ph.D. and Max Planck Institute scholar. Don suggested that if I wasn’t impressed with clinical psychology perhaps I would be interested in sensory physiology. He quickly added that he was not offering me a job working with him. To be accepted I was required to build him a functional auditory system. Two weeks later using a few dozen condoms (serving as basilar membranes), and parts stripped from an old car, the required ear was presented and I was accepted into a world of sensory physiology that would define my eventual professional life. With Don as my mentor I learned to perform brain surgery, record from single cells and understand the relationship of vestibular function to the rest of the sensory system. Through Don I was introduced as a student to scientists working on intense low frequency sound in the Aero-Medical Research Vibration and Impact laboratory at Wright Patterson Air Force Base.

A student’s experience with Don was not always an easy one. Even though we became very close friends, Don expected and demanded perfection. I recall doing exceedingly well on a couple of tasks throughout the semester. Don gave me B’s for my performance. When I questioned him about the grade he acknowledged that my performance had been very good, but that A’s were for perfection, and no one was perfect. At other times when I would seem to slack off he would suggest that perhaps I should leave the university to sell hardware (which he understood was lucrative), and once he gave me away for a semester to another professor who was doing food preference research with chickens. Lesson learned. As the years passed he did mellow somewhat, telling me not to be so tough on the young people in the laboratory or suggesting that the tests I would give at the University of Houston were much too difficult.

Throughout the years following graduation Don and I continued to work together. He was instrumental in helping me become a dedicated researcher at NASA. He took a sabbatical from Miami University to work with me in the Neuroscience Laboratory at NASA’S Johnson Space Center. Don and I chased Space Shuttle landings for several years, testing astronauts minutes after touchdown at Edwards Air Base or at the Kennedy Space Center. Don was one of the first to refine the difficult task of getting vestibular experiments approved for flight.

Whenever I needed him he would return to Houston to help. Don was more than a teacher, mentor, and colleague. He was an inspiration, with an intellect that never rested. Don was the most brilliant, intuitive person I have known. Without him I could never have achieved as NASA Chief of Neuroscience. Without his friendship and guidance my life will never be the same.”

In a similar vein, Dr. Randy Tubbs, who retired from the National Institute of Occupational Safety and Health, was another Ph.D. student who worked extensively with Don who served as his dissertation advisor. Randy provided the following remembrances of Don’s influence on his career:

“I met Don Parker in the fall of 1972 at the beginning of graduate school at Miami University. He was my major professor and he quickly initiated my research into the area of the vestibular system. We placed undergraduate volunteers into the parallel swing (“the hot water heater”} to measure their detection of linear motion, and guinea pigs with LED lights on their backs into a kiddie wading pool in a darkened room to see the effects of loud sounds delivered to one ear on their directional swimming. Quite a diverse area of research.

However, Don saw the writing on the wall for the funding of governmental research into outer space travel arena and strongly recommended that I move into acoustical research because of the greater possibility of a job potential. Don’s background during his graduate school days was in this field, so he was more than capable to act as a mentor and teacher as I completed my degree requirements. He structured a research and knowledge pathway that led to my eventual degree.

Throughout my graduate school career, Don always provided me with the guidance that prepared me to conduct research that would be applicable to both the academic and applied research worlds. He not only provided me with the knowledge base in psychoacoustics that would prove essential in my career with the United State Public Health Service, but also instilled in me a desire to look at alternative methods in solving problems encountered by the U.S. workforce. There were many occasions where senior staff at the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health would comment on my varied background and depth of knowledge in this field. I give a sincere thank you to Professor Donald Parker.”

Don continued his role as instructor at the University of Washington. Included among his offerings there were courses on the vestibular system, motion/simulator sickness, spatial awareness, and statistics. He mentored and served on theses and dissertations in the Department of Otolaryngology at Washington. Many of these mentorships resulted in multi-authored publications in a variety of distinguished journals. What is so remarkable is that his intellectual energy continued unabated well into his 70s!

The model for Miami faculty during Don’s tenure was a challenge for all of us to live up to. As amply illustrated earlier, Don would seem to have met any requirements for a successful career at any institution with his remarkably productive research and his record of excellent teaching. That said, his service contribution to Miami’s Psychology Department and the university at large is equally impressive. Within the department, he served as Department Chair for three years, Assistant Chair for several years, Coordinator of Graduate Studies, as well as on many other committee assignments. Outside the department, Don served on the University Faculty Council. The Faculty Research Committee, the Artist Series Committee, the Graduate Council, the President’s Advisory Committee, and the College of Arts and Science’s Promotion and Tenure Committee. These various memberships illustrate impressively the respect that Don garnered both within his department and among his colleagues across the university. Don shared his expertise with members of the community with presentations to the Rotary Club and other civic groups both within Oxford and in other cities in the region.

Don was a devoted family man who took great pride in his family and spoke of them regularly with his colleagues and friends. Don engaged in many activities, including regular attendance at Artist Series events, many different Miami sporting events, as well as concerts both in Oxford and in Cincinnati. He loved playing sports with his colleagues, including squash, basketball, and softball. He was a competitive type who exchanged more than a few elbows and used a considerable backhand to his advantage in squash and basketball. He loved flying an airplane that was co-owned by several local pilots. There are more than a few stories of the experience of one of the writers of this document that took place during long cross-country flights in which Don reassured the writer and his wife that nothing was seriously wrong with the plane just before declaring an emergency with an air controller in Gainesville, Florida. The controller recommended we return to the St. Petersburg airport that we had departed about 30 minutes earlier. We were glad to touch down at the Miami airport a couple of days later after the airplane was repaired! Don continued his active life after he moved to Seattle, where he continued to fly, hike the beautiful trails in the area, and kayak in Puget Sound.

The Psychology Department of today owes much to the influence of Don and some of his colleagues who valued scholarly activity and high quality teaching. Together they worked to diversify the faculty and graduate students in the department. Don was certainly a powerful influence in changing the direction the department began to take in the late 60s, an influence than can be observed in the wonderful productivity of today’s department. We are profoundly indebted to Don for his contributions to the university and the community.

Acknowledgement: The authors of this document wish to express their sincere gratitude to Drs. Millard Reschke, Randy Tubbs, and Richard Sherman for their valued contributions.

Respectfully submitted by Raymond M. White and Arthur G. Miller