Haverford College – one of the nation's top liberal arts schools - has selected a research scientist from the University of Pennsylvania as its next president.

Stephen G. Emerson, himself a Haverford graduate, has worked at Penn for 12 years, where he became chief of the university's hematology-oncology division and established a stem-cell research program.

It is a little unusual for a teaching-focused liberal arts school to choose as president a candidate whose career has been so devoted to scientific research. But Haverford has historically placed a strong emphasis on science, and the college's departing president, Thomas R. Tritton, is also a scientist.

"We didn't see any unique distinction in the fact that he's been a scientist leading a research effort," said Barry L. Zubrow, cochair of Haverford's Board of Managers, which made the selection. "We focused on the quality of his mind."

Zubrow called Emerson a "world-class scientist" but also a world-class teacher and educator with wide-ranging interests.

Emerson, 53, will officially leave the laboratory for Haverford's picturesque Main Line campus of 1,100 students on July 1.

"It is a leap," Emerson said of the differences between his current job and his new one. But he said it was an opportunity he couldn't pass up.

"Haverford College is unique in the world of higher education in America," he said, citing its academic rigor and public service tradition.

Emerson also said he was looking forward to working more closely with faculty and students, something he'd had little opportunity to do in recent years. He said he hoped to establish a stem-cell research program at Haverford, albeit a less ambitious operation than he had at Penn that would be better suited for undergraduate participation.

It would likely be the only research program of its kind at a liberal arts school, Emerson said.

"Haverford's undergraduate science education is the equivalent of what you can obtain at the best, largest research universities in America," he said. "Students can get that, and still be at a small college, become involved in art, drama, the community."

After receiving his bachelor's degree at Haverford, Emerson earned a doctorate in cell biology and immunology as well as a medical degree from Yale University. He worked at the Harvard Medical School and the University of Michigan before moving to Penn in 1994.

Contact staff writer Patrick Kerkstra at 215-854-2795 or pkerkstra@phillynews.com.