April 2013

Q&A with Montana Professor of the Year Mike Morrow

Mike Morrow

Mike Morrow, professor of biology at the University of Montana Western, was named the Carnegie Foundation 2012 Montana Professor of the Year. Sponsored every year by the Carnegie Foundation for the Advancement of Teaching and the Council for Advancement and Support of Education, this national award honors instructors for their contributions to undergraduate education. He is the fourth professor in a row from the university, located in Dillon, Mont., to win the award. Morrow was instrumental in revamping a predominantly health science program to one that now offers biomedical courses, including biochemistry and molecular biology, along with research experiences for undergraduates. Consequently, student enrollment has risen, new faculty members have been recruited, grant funding has increased, and students of this program have gone on to pursue careers in biomedical fields. In this interview with ASBMB Today, Morrow emphasizes the value of research in teaching. He says, in part, “There’s no better way to teach a biology undergraduate student how to be a scientist than to give them research experience. You have to fail, try again, redo your approach, make your mistakes and learn from them.”
What is the focus of your laboratory research?
My lab research focuses on the yeast Candida albicans, specifically the eukaryotic machinery involved in the early secretory pathway. There are multiple players that are responsible for translocation of proteins from the cytosol to the endoplasmic reticulum. Using Saccharomyces cerevisiae, the brewer’s yeast, as a guide to know what players we should look for, we try to locate similar genes in C. albicans. Since most of these genes are essential for C. albicans' survival, our approach has been to generate conditional knockouts for these genes. We then do in vitro assays to see if translocation into the ER still happens when there are reduced amounts of these Candida proteins.
What inspired you to teach at an undergraduate institution rather than a research-focused university?
I was always drawn to teaching and found that I had an aptitude and could do it effectively; taking complex topics in biology and microbiology and being able to explain those at some level to undergraduate students is extremely appealing to me, and it is very rewarding to help them understand and go on and do great things themselves. So that certainly was part of the major driving force for me to become a teacher. As for the smaller school, I have always wanted that, because I really like to interact closely with my students, get to know them and help them achieve their goals and be connected enough to feel success through their successes.
Why did you choose Montana?
I was always interested in a smaller school. Our school has about 1,400 students. I wanted a place that was focused on undergrad education. I was always interested in a four-year, baccalaureate-granting institution. My personal interest involves the outdoors, and we certainly have a lot of that. It was a perfect storm of opportunity for me in that there was potential to build a strong biomedical science program. All these factors solidified my decision.

Amanda Kortum
Amanda Kortum was a student in Mike Morrow’s lab and graduated in 2011. She was the recipient of an American Society for Microbiology fellowship and is enrolled in the DVM/Ph.D. program at North Carolina State University.

What were the contributing factors to your success at Montana Western?
Most certainly one of the biggest factors has been the funding we have had through the IDeA Networks of Biomedical Research Excellence program of the National Institutes of Health. That helped us modernize equipment, expand course offerings, have up-to-date research experiences for our undergraduates in my research and also use these resources for our courses.
The willingness of the institution to expand in this direction, having a biomedical degree program, was also important.
Another factor certainly has to do with the block scheduling program that we use here. The students take one course at a time, allowing us to do a lot more lab activities as part of the coursework. As laboratory scientists, we can do a lot more science — one aspect of the experiment today and then meet tomorrow to do the next part of the experiment. You do not have to wait a week for the next lab to come around to do the next step. It really opens up the doors to different things we can do as teachers.
We changed the curriculum from a health-science-based to a biomedical-focused one. The transition was pretty big. Prior to the establishment of this new degree, the institution didn’t offer a pipeline that helped students get into professional health areas like medical school, Ph.D. programs or research careers. So the student population was always in this region, but they really didn’t have any options at Montana Western. When we developed this program, a lot of the students started recognizing the things that they could do at UMW, and they started to come when the program was in place. Much like the rest of the country, the student demand was there, and once we developed the infrastructure and options here, the students came.
Can you speak about the grants that helped you with the restructuring?
The INBRE grant helped us bring in the money to modernize the curriculum and scientific instruments to offer the research experiences to our students. It is a statewide grant designed to build research infrastructure and help increase students in the biomedical pipeline, especially in less populated states that haven’t historically had that much National Institutes of Health funding.
As a graduate student, I had had some grant-writing experience. During the transition to Montana, I did know that these opportunities were going to be here, and coming to a place that had little infrastructure would have been hard to accept had I not known that the potential was there.
Other collaborators across the state were very willing to help develop proposals and allow me to perform experiments in their labs if they had equipment that we needed. Building collaborations meant there was a lot of assistance for somebody new like me to be part of this statewide initiative.
I was hired on a smaller NIH grant that lasted for two years. When the INBRE came along, it was larger and involved a number of institutions throughout the state, and we were one of the beneficiaries.
Could you describe your career trajectory, highlighting your evolution as a scientist?
As I went through my undergrad degree in biology (at Bloomsburg University of Pennsylvania), the idea of being a professor was always there for me, and largely as a teaching professor in an undergraduate institution. Research experience at the University of Pittsburgh between my junior and senior years in college introduced me to scientists and convinced me to go on into a cell/molecular biology area and get a Ph.D. As part of the graduate program at the University of Pittsburgh, I was on a teaching assistantship. I actually got to do a lot more teaching than most graduate students did. My adviser encouraged me to participate in other teaching opportunities in different environments — like I taught molecular biology for a couple of years at the dental school.
Close to graduation, I started looking for teaching postdoc positions that were rare at that time. At Juniata College in Huntingdon, Penn., I got to teach half time and mentored undergraduate researchers part time; it was an awesome experience.
Due to my outdoor activities, I looked for opportunities in the West, and the UMW opportunity presented itself to allow me to do a lot of the same. I don’t think that I could have dreamed for it to work out so well for myself.
What would you tell postdocs/Ph.D.s looking to pursue teaching careers in small college settings?
The institution must have the infrastructure or the ability to build infrastructure to establish your own research program and to provide undergrads in your courses with the experiences that you feel they need to have to truly be effective after graduation. You have to certainly love teaching — there’s always a heavy demand on teaching, and you have to love it, or else getting up to work will really not be fun. Personally, I think somebody that wants to be successful teaching biology in a small school has to be sold on the idea of marrying research with teaching, because providing undergrads that research experience is the essence of being a biologist. You have to see the educational benefit of teaching someone how to make a buffer or to do a streak plate on a petri dish. You might not have a high-powered research program, but the reward of teaching someone is something you should be looking for. Since the pace of research is much slower here, it is important to find an area that is related, maybe a little less explored with regard to the aspect that you will be focusing on. The challenges with that, of course, are learning a new system, new organism, new literature and new approaches to asking questions experimentally … Sometimes the products of your labor are not very tangible; at the end of the day, you don’t know if you were really successful at your job or not. I have been fortunate to see a program and the success of the program build in a relatively short amount of time, so there has been a lot of positive reward associated with what we have done.

Preethi ChanderPreethi Chander (chander.preethi@gmail.com) is a science policy analyst at the National Institutes of Health.

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