The Face of Malibu by Johanna Spinks

Dr. Donna Nofziger Plank

Dr. Donna Nofziger Plank is not your average scientist — she’s beautiful, young, a mom and helps street children in Kenya. She holds a doctorate in molecular biology from UCLA. She’s been living in Malibu for more than 20 years and is a professor at Pepperdine University. She teaches cell biology, developmental biology, histology and human genetics. She puts a unique spin to her science classes, encouraging her students to explore their artistic side rather than just memorizing facts.

Plank, along with her Pepperdine students, has been organizing Family Science Night for years in Malibu. The event takes place once a year and brings together hundreds of local residents. 

The Malibu Times got a chance to sit down with the woman who believes knowledge should be used to make the world a better place.

At what point in your life did you realize you wanted to be a scientist?

I’ve always been really interested in how things work and trying to figure out explanations on why things are the way they are out in nature. I always wanted to know why and how. That’s how I fell into science when I went to college. I always had smart people in front of me in college telling me what I needed to know. Biology explains how things work, and I decided to focus my energy on life at the molecular level.

You believe there is a connection between art and science. How are they similar?

I think that the best scientists are very creative and they have a very strong artistic side. Oftentimes, science education isn’t done well because we turn it into memorizing things, and it’s boring. That’s not science at all. Science is about seeking answers and explanations. It helps if you are creative and think of creative ways to do that. In my class, we do a lot of science-related art projects to bring out the students’ creative side. They are used to memorizing, and I push to get their artistic side out. I like giving reasons for why things are the way they are versus just memorizing things.

As a scientist, what is one idea or invention that you hope to be created in the near future and why? 

Having everyone’s genetic information on your smartphone so you could tailor medicine and wellness to your personal genetic background. You could get daily updates, like according to your genetic background, you should avoid the sun today. Treatments are tailor-made for you. They are close to doing this already. We have the technology; it just needs to be affordable.

You help orphans in Kenya. How and when did that start? What kind of aid do you provide?

The local church took their youth group to Kenya to work with an organization called “Made in the Street.” My oldest daughter went with them and came back raving about it. It’s sort of a boarding school for kids in Nairobi. They teach them and do job training. So I decided to do the same with my Pepperdine students. We just got back after spending three weeks in Kenya. Sixteen Pepperdine students were working on a research project about global health. We teach science and also hold science camps. We just finished our second summer there.

If you were to recommend one good book for everyone to read which one would it be and why?

“Brothers Karamazov” by Fyodor Dostoyevsky because the dialogue is fascinating, and “Guns, Germs, and Steel” by Jared M. Diamond. I love that book. He takes history, science and ecology and says this is why the world is the way it is.

What is your favorite thing about Malibu? If you could change one thing about Malibu, what would it be and why?

I love the small town feel with Malibu. The metaphorical town squares, like the soccer field on Saturdays or Starbucks after school. I love the community feel of the small town. I also love how it is a small town but with so many different constituencies. The only thing that I would change is how with so many different constituencies come differences, and sometimes we’re less than civil and need to listen to each other more.

How was it having your portrait painted by Johanna Spinks?

I’m not used to sitting still for two hours. It was nice to just sit still and be. It was also weird for me to be the focal point. I’m usually the observer. But Johanna made me feel comfortable and at ease. It was a very interesting experience.