September 2010

Richard Hanson: A Maestro of Metabolism


Artist, educator, biochemist and more...learn about longtime ASBMB member Richard Hanson.


Richard HansonCleveland may be a fairly big city, but even amongst its masses, Richard W. Hanson sometimes finds it hard to hide.

“I often joke around that it is impossible to have an affair in this town and keep it a secret,” says Hanson, who, incidentally, has been married happily for nearly 50 years. “Quite often, someone comes up to me and says, ‘Hi, Dr. Hanson, do you remember me? I took your class back in so-and-so year.’”

“In fact, I visited a proctologist recently who turned out to be one of my former students.”

The class in question is an introductory biochemistry course, which Hanson, when he’s not hard at work in the lab elucidating the physiological role and regulation of the metabolic enzyme phosphoenolpyruvate carboxykinase, has taught at Case Western Reserve University School of Medicine in Cleveland for more than 30 years now. Each year, more than 230 students enroll in the biochemistry course, and, each year, almost all of them leave happily— and more knowledgeable about biochemistry than when they started.

To understand the secret behind these positive reviews— Hanson’s classes routinely are the highest rated each year— one needs only to consider one of his favorite authors, William Shakespeare. (Hanson regularly quotes the Bard in his writings, and even has an iPhone app with Shakespeare’s complete works.) For, if “all the world’s a stage,” then that includes university auditoriums.

“He views teaching biochemistry as theater,” says William Merrick, Hanson’s longtime colleague in the biochemistry department. “Once he comes in, the show begins.”

Not only does his teaching style help students understand a complex subject that most fear and only take because the course is a requirement, but it keeps Hanson spirited as well. “My colleagues often ask me if I get tired of teaching the same material over and over again, and I say never, for every class is different, and every year is different; it is always a challenge to have students leave your course feeling that they actually understand biochemistry and to tell you it was their favorite course.”

“In my view, there are two types of teachers, ‘simplifiers’ and ‘complicators,’” he continues. “The latter take a complicated subject and make it more complicated. I am a simplifier, always concerned about the complexities of the biochemistry, and I try to make the subject clear to the students; this approach has worked very well for me over the years.”

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