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In Memoriam: Denis Mitchell

The retired psychology professor taught in USC Dornsife for 30 years. In addition to his research, he was widely known for his dedication to the individual development of his students.

Denis Mitchell, here pictured in his younger years, was well known for his research on animal behavior. Photo courtesy of Kitling Mitchell.
Denis Mitchell, here pictured in his younger years, was well known for his research on animal behavior. Photo courtesy of Kitling Mitchell.

Denis Mitchell, retired associate professor of psychology in USC Dornsife, died Aug. 21, 2012, after a five-year battle with brain cancer.

“Denis was a humanitarian with exceptional talents, character and a sense of humor,” his wife Kitling Mitchell said. “He was versatile in every aspect of his unusual life. Teaching was his passion.”

Mitchell joined USC Dornsife in 1977 as a faculty member in the Department of Psychology. He is well known for his research on animal models of phobias and eating disorders, specializing in neophobia in wild animals — the fear of eating anything with an unfamiliar odor or flavor — and geophagia — the compulsion to eat dirt or clay. He retired in August 2007.

Margaret Gatz, a colleague of Mitchell’s for more than two decades, remembers Mitchell as an award-winning teacher who made a real difference in the lives of many USC undergraduates. Gatz, professor of psychology, gerontology and preventive medicine, and chair of the Department of Psychology in USC Dornsife, recalls how Mitchell focused on the individual development of each student in his class.

“Denis was amazingly dedicated to teaching. He read Piaget and other developmental psychologists in order to understand how he might become a better instructor,” Gatz said. “He was a huge influence on many students who took his general education classes and his upper-level seminars in psychobiology and evolutionary psychology. With his students, he was deliberately provocative in order to stimulate learning. One described Denis as 'eccentric, hilarious, generous and caring.'"

In 1987, Mitchell was presented with a USC Associates Award for Excellence in Teaching, the highest honor university faculty bestows on its members for outstanding teaching. In 2006, he received the General Education Teaching Award from USC Dornsife for his contribution to the general education program. In an evaluation of his course “Love and Attachment,” one student wrote: “Professor Mitchell was fast, forced you to keep up, kept material interesting, pushed you to work hard and seemed to put as much effort into showing us how to grow intellectually as in learning the subject material. I loved this class.”

Mitchell was a primary figure in the creation of the psychobiology program at USC Dornsife, which later became the neuroscience program, one of USC’s most popular majors, noted David Walsh, associate professor of psychology in USC Dornsife.

“The psychobiology program prepared hundreds of USC students for medical school and careers in neuroscience,” Walsh said.

Referred to as “Doc” by his students, Mitchell’s rapport with them and his attention to their professional development is evident in their recollections of him as a mentor.

Debbie Yen-Dao Dang, who earned her bachelor’s and master’s degrees in psychology from USC Dornsife, said that Mitchell was instrumental in guiding her toward the medical training that put her on the path toward her current career as an orthopedic surgeon.

“In short, Dr. Mitchell changed my life,” she said. “He did so by simply caring and taking the time to mentor me during my time as an undergraduate at USC Dornsife. He taught me to embrace opportunity. He often had more confidence in me than I had in myself and that made all the difference.”

Bob Scopatz was an undergraduate student worker in Mitchell’s lab in the late ’70s. He remembers participating in passionate discussions during weekly lab meetings on topics ranging from animal behavior and the philosophy of science, to genetics and evolution.  Scopatz recalled how Mitchell would lead field trips to teach students how to observe animals in nature, and also set aside study space for those taking the Graduate Record Examinations (GRE) and Medical College Admission Test (MCAT) exams.

“With his students, Denis was always ready to help and instruct,” he said.

Scopatz, who earned his bachelor’s in psychobiology from USC Dornsife in 1980, went on to earn a Ph.D. in experimental psychology from Columbia University. He said he has been fortunate to be around brilliant researchers, and “none of that would have happened if it hadn’t have been for Denis sharing his love of science and deep insights into animal behavior.”


Mitchell, retired associate professor of psychology in USC Dornsife, was dedicated to the individual development of his students. He also enjoyed playing the guitar. Photo courtesy of Kitling Mitchell.

In 2005, Mitchell was a featured speaker in the lecture series “What Matters to Me and Why” hosted by the USC Office of Religious Life. He spoke of the importance of encouraging students to be an active participant in their own development.

“At the university level, it’s very easy to focus on content and forget the development of the individual student,” he said. “Each student needs to take charge, be involved in their education and have confidence in their abilities.”

David Lavond, professor of psychology in USC Dornsife, said Mitchell challenged students to think critically.

“He inspired students to achieve beyond their self-defined limits,” Lavond said.

Bosco Tjan, associate professor of psychology in USC Dornsife, occupied the office next to Mitchell’s. He recalls that there seemed to always be a line of students waiting to see Mitchell.

“Instead of sending students to the teachers’ assistants, he required the students to meet with him early in the semester, so that he could get to know them individually,” Tjan said.

“He was popular as a teacher. His lectures were sharp, engaging and thought-provoking, and it happened a few times that students gave him a standing ovation at the end of a semester. Yet, the best education he gave to his students were those chats he had with them in his office and lab. USC lost a very special teacher when Denis retired five years ago.”

Mitchell received his Ph.D. in 1975 from the University of Washington. He was a member of the Society for Neuroscience, the Association for Integrative Studies, the scientific research society Sigma Xi and the American Psychological Society. He frequently contributed reviews to the journals Animal Learning and Behavior, Behavioral Processes, and Physiology and Behavior.

In addition to his wife Kitling, Mitchell is survived by his daughter, Kimberly.

There will be a private memorial.