Updated Friday, 5:39 p.m.

Heidi Frontani, professor of geography, died Friday of a sudden illness according to an email from President Leo Lambert.

Faculty sources say she died of a sudden heart attack at Alamance Regional Medical Center.

Frontani was 50.

Frontani was teaching COR 404: Africans and African Development and LED 498: Leadership Research this semester at Elon University while working on two books -- one on the Rockefeller Foundation's and Wellcome Trust's Health Sector Aid to Africa through World War II and another on outstanding African leaders.

"Heidi's death is devastating to our community," Lambert said in the email. "It leaves us with a profound sense of grief and reminds us that the life of each person here is precious. We are a stronger university because of Heidi. The students she taught and mentored, and the values they carry into this world, are perhaps her greatest legacy."

Since 1998, Frontani has been professor of geography in the Department of History and Geography with expertise in African studies. She dedicated much of her time to researching biodiversity with a focus on the African country of Ghana, where she spent two years teaching high school-aged kids before coming to Elon.

Last fall, she was one of seven faculty members who was named a Leadership Scholar. She was a geography professor, Senior Faculty Research Fellow, and co-chair of the Implementation and Assessment Team for the Presidential Task Force on the Black Student.

Before being named a Leadership Scholar she held other leadership positions at Elon including: chair of the Department of History and Geography, faculty mentor of the Ghana class of the Periclean Scholars, faculty adviser of Visions Environmental Magazine and Gamma Phi Beta, the Geography Honor Society.

Frontani was the Class of 2010 Periclean Scholars mentor. She mentored students in a variety of majors while at Elon, assisting with their research and publishing journal articles.

In 2014, she was named one of three senior faculty fellows to be a Senior Faculty Research Fellow through the two academic school years of 2015-2016 and 2016-2017. She earned a two-course reassignment for two consecutive years and $2,000-per-year in funding for her research.

"She is the most effective Periclean Scholars mentor that we've had and has mentored students to make really profound contributions," said Charles Irons, associate professor of history and chair of the History and Geography Department. "We do want to signal in the strongest possible way our appreciation of Heidi and our care and concern for her family."

Said Jeffrey Coker, director of the Elon Core Curriculum: "Heidi has been a beloved and just invaluable faculty member for within the core curriculum for a long time. She has been one our best contributors to the global experience course. She has also taught core capstones that were fantastic. ... Anybody that ever met Heidi would just be in awe of her passion for Africa for her students for teaching and she was always so genuine and offering her perspective. She was always giving and contributing to the larger community."

Frontani was running a blog about her work to create a database of hundreds of African leaders. She posted on there as recently as Feb. 20.

She earned her Ph.D. in geography from the University of Wisconsin in 1997.

Frontani was the wife of Michael Frontani, associate professor of communications.

There will be a gathering of friends at 4 p.m. Monday, Feb. 29 in the Sacred Space of the Numen Lumen Pavilion.

This story is being jointly reported by Elon Local News and The Pendulum. Bryan Anderson, Elizabeth Bilka, Ashley Bohle, Andrew Feather, Tommy Hamzik, and Paul LeBlanc contributed to this story.