Anne Rankin

Year of Graduation: 
Anne Rankin and Ellie Griffin during a genetics lab.

“It’s much more about modeling the behaviors of how a person who wants to learn does it.” 

Anne Rankin ‘92 remembers the moment she began thinking about becoming a teacher at Exeter. She was getting her master’s in ecology and evolutionary biology at the University of California - Irvine at the time, and had taken a camping trip with her husband and her brother, Jon Rankin ‘96. 

“I had this night of insomnia, just thinking what am I going to do?” Rankin recalls. “What do I do next?” 

As she scrolled back through some of the moments when she had felt the most happiness or satisfaction, one of them stood out. “I thought about being in Mr. Polychronis’ Bio classes [at Exeter], and having something really click for me,” she says. “That feeling when something’s been rolling around the edges and tumbling around in your brain, and all of a sudden...oh, I got it!” 

Rankin remembers thinking for the first time about how it might feel to be on the opposite side of that moment — to be the teacher watching a student make that all-important connection, or even setting up the conditions for it to happen. Would it be equally gratifying? 

She was already well aware of the potential for learning to change the course of someone’s life. Her father, Dr. Kenneth “Ned” Rankin ‘59, was one of more than 800 young men who attended Exeter between 1946 and 1960, thanks to the efforts of H. Hamilton Bissell ‘29, longtime English instructor and the school’s first director of scholarships. 

“My dad was a newspaper boy in Cleveland, Ohio,” Rankin says. “In the words he used, [going to Exeter] kind of spun him out of one trajectory of life and into another one.” Rankin and her three siblings grew up in Oakland, California, and all four of them would attend Exeter. 

After that sleepless night of camping, Rankin applied for a teaching job at Exeter, as well as a spot in her top-choice Ph.D. program. She got both. “I decided that I would just take this job and kind of get it out of my system,” she says. That was more than 14 years ago. 

As an instructor in the Science Department and the Eleanor Gwin Ellis Professor, Rankin has taught courses in biology, genetics and environmental science. Beginning in 2012, she helped develop the experimental molecular genetics biology course Bio 470 (known as “the fly course”) in collaboration with her colleague Townley Chisholm P’10, P’11, P’14 and Dr. Seung Kim ‘81, a professor of developmental biology at Stanford University.

In the course, students research and work with Drosophila, or common fruit flies, which have a genetic makeup that is startlingly similar to that of humans. Apart from a ton of new biology knowledge, the collaboration with Kim’s lab at Stanford has given Rankin “a willingness to try new things, and a paradigm shift on what it actually means to be a teacher,” she says. “I think for me now, it’s much more about modeling the behaviors of how a person who wants to learn does it.” 

During the spring 2020 term, Rankin’s course load included three sections of ninth-grade biology and a Bio 999 in neurobiology, all of which were conducted virtually due to the COVID-19 pandemic. In addition to navigating the new challenges posed by remote teaching, Rankin is also adjusting to farm life. 

After living for years on campus, and later in a house in Exeter, Rankin and her family — husband John Webber and their daughters Catherine Webber ‘21 and Camille — moved last summer to a farm in Brentwood, formerly owned by the late Exeter instructor, Polly McMullen. 

“We had this sort of magical experience of walking on the property [for the first time] in a snowstorm,” Rankin says. “It wasn’t one of those things where you make pros and cons lists. ... We just decided to jump.” 

McMullen kept horses, but so far Rankin and her family have only dogs and a rabbit. She describes herself as a gardener, rather than a big animal person, but adds that she would love to have a herd of fainting goats — for educational purposes. 

“The mechanism by which they faint would be perfect for teaching,” she says. “It’s exactly how we teach ninth graders about muscles.”