October 21, 2009-- Colleagues and students don’t hold back when asked to evaluate University of Richmond associate professor of chemistry Lisa Gentile. They gush about her enthusiasm and about how she always delivers. They say she “rolls up her sleeves, gets out the chalk and goes to work.” They call her a “dynamo.”
If you average such reviews, add them to her laundry list of responsibilities as a department head, sprinkle in a dash of her K-12 outreach efforts and analyze the results, you don’t need an advanced degree to conclude – unscientifically, of course – that she must be superhuman, or pretty close to it.
All kidding aside, those who work with Gentile in the classroom and lab have come to expect no less than greatness from her, making her selection as the winner of the American Society for Biochemistry and Molecular Biology’s Award for Exemplary Contributions to Education all the more fitting, according to Barbara Gordon, executive director of ASBMB.
“Lisa’s commitment to teaching and turning her research into experiential-learning opportunities for students at all levels makes her an outstanding example for faculty at whatever stage of their careers,” Gordon said.
Gentile said she feels lucky to be recognized for simply doing the things she loves best.
“I am incredibly honored to be nominated for this award, especially considering the accomplishments of some of the past recipients,” she said. “I am fortunate to be part of an institution that is so supportive of interdisciplinary approaches to science education, both in the classroom and in the research lab.”
Colleagues describe Gentile, long a vocal champion of undergraduate research and a pioneer of outreach activities for each institution at which she has hung her hat, as something of a change agent.
“Her energy, creativity and passion for curricular reform seem boundless. She seems to develop new courses with ease – all the while still mentoring research students, writing research proposals and submitting manuscripts for publication,” said professor Carol Parish, a member of Gentile’s department.
Today, Gentile is collaborating with colleagues from five different disciplines to establish a unique course that replaces standard introductory classes in computer science, biology, chemistry, physics and math. Instead of learning the subjects in isolation, students will approach them in an interdisciplinary way, according to professor J. Ellis Bell, who insisted that such reworking of curricula is “the future of science education.”
The quantitative science course, to be offered over two semesters to first-year students, is funded in part by a grant from the Howard Hughes Medical Institute. Ten faculty members – two from each of the disciplines – spent last year developing the course and are now spending this year in implementation, Gentile said.
Not surprisingly, Gentile’s inclusive approach also carries over into her laboratory. Each summer, she invites high school teachers and students from schools serving underrepresented minorities to work alongside her research group, which studies the structure and function of proteins.
“I have been blessed to work with some amazing teachers and students in this capacity,” she said. “In fact, just this morning, I got word that one of the high school teachers, Jamie Yoos, with whom I worked at my previous institution, Western Washington University, was just named the state teacher of the year. I am really proud of him and the impact he is having on high school chemistry students.”
Parish said Gentile actively cultivates a lab group camaraderie that facilities student engagement.
“She regularly invites them to her home for dinner and game nights and leads them in relationship-building outdoor activities. Her students are clearly invested in their projects, and Lisa encourages this intellectual ownership by providing just the right amount of mentoring,” Parish said.
Gentile, who also won an award from the Faculty Early Career Development (CAREER) Program at the National Science Foundation, regularly publishes in both the scientific and educational arena and has worked with scientific societies like ASBMB to further develop innovative educational approaches.
“Lisa is prolific in research. She has published seven papers with undergraduate coauthors since 2004 – this is almost four times the national average of faculty from predominately undergraduate institutions,” Parish said.
In recognition of the ASBMB award, which is bestowed annually upon a scientist who encourages effective teaching of biochemistry and molecular biology through leadership, writing, educational research, mentoring and/or outreach, Gentile will give a plenary lecture, “Dynamics of PKA Signaling,” during the education portion of the society’s annual meeting April 24-28 in Anaheim, Calif.
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