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Grandson of longtime Lipscomb biology professor takes his spot on the Lipscomb faculty

Josh Owens brings experience in immunology and cancer biology to today’s students.

Janel Shoun-Smith | 615.966.7078  | 

Josh Owens in McFarland lab with a photo of his grandfather Willis Owens

Dr. Josh Owens ('16) is teaching in the same classrooms as his grandfather Dr. Willis Owens, biology professor at Lipscomb for three decades.

For almost 40 years, Dr. Willis Owens (’53) laid the foundation for generations of Lipscomb students moving into scientific research, medicine and environmental sciences. His one and only lifetime job was teaching biology and genetics at Lipscomb University.

Now, three decades after his retirement and three years after his death, his grandson, Dr. Josh Owens (’16), is continuing that legacy as an assistant professor in biology at Lipscomb. Teaching in the same halls and classrooms in McFarland Science Center where his grandfather taught is a privilege that Josh Owens does not take lightly.

“He was pretty hard as a teacher,” Owens reflects today. “He graded strictly because he was pushing people to excel.”

Whereas the elder Owens took his Intro to Biology students to his own backyard on Graybar Lane to identify plants and trees as his final exam, Josh Owens is preparing the next generation of scientists in cancer biology, at both the undergraduate and graduate level.

The younger Owens grew up in Huntsville, Alabama, but he remembers plenty of times when his grandfather took him on hikes to identify various plants and trees. His lifelong love of the outdoors is what drew Willis Owens to study, and then teach, the life sciences.

Not only are Willis and Josh Owens both alumni of Lipscomb, but two of Willis’ children, Josh’s mother and both of Josh’s siblings are all Lipscomb alums as well, all with a history of ministry, engineering and health care careers.

Willis Owens teaching biology

Dr. Willis Owens was known for his final exam, where he brought the class to the yard of his Graybar Lane home to identify plantlife.

Throughout his youth, thanks in part to those hikes with his grandfather, Josh came to “love the complexity and the organization of ourselves. I don’t think you can study biology and not believe in a Creator,” he said, noting that his grandfather also strongly believed that “you can be a good biologist and a good Christian.”

During his college career, Josh was able to participate in research projects with now Biology Department Chair Dr. Jon Lowrance, which steered him down the scientific research path rather than pursuing a medical degree. After earning his bachelor’s from Lipscomb, Josh pursued his Ph.D. in immunology at Emory University in Atlanta and was weighing job offers from the Centers for Disease Control and a biotech firm in California when his former mentor contacted him about the open position at Lipscomb.

After much discussion and prayer, he and his wife Erin decided he should come to Lipscomb. “When God calls you, you have to respond, and I feel like this was a direct call,” he said.

Arriving on campus, he found his office in McFarland Hall, the same building his grandfather saw built from the ground up in the 1960s. Willis Owens earned his master’s from then-Peabody College in Nashville and began teaching at Lipscomb. The university helped him earn his Ph.D. at Michigan State University and he taught at Lipscomb until 1990, training several of the professors who came to be mentors for his grandson.

Willis Owens was earning his Lipscomb degree when James Watson and Francis Crick discovered the double helix of DNA, which transformed his chosen field from being focused on plants and animals to being focused on genetics, a shift that “changed the game” for his career, he told his grandson.

Josh Owens hopes his career can be a factor in changing the game for cancer sufferers. His research at Emory has involved how our body’s immune response can contribute to eliminating cancer. He also worked on developing methods to test for Covid-19 and has been published in three papers regarding Covid-19.

His Ph.D. studies also resulted in identifying a new molecule from bacteria in the intestine that plays a role in obesity and weight gain, he said. That’s just the kind of discovery that drew him to biological research in the first place, he said.

“Research is amazing, because if you ask the right questions, you could become the first person in the world to see what you are seeing,” he said.

He is optimistic that we will continue asking the right questions and someday, perhaps within the lifetime of his children, be a part of the cure for cancer.

Certainly Josh Owens’ apple doesn’t fall far from the Willis Owens tree.