Director, Center for the Study of Biological Complexity
Professor, Microbiology & Immunology
School of Medicine
What drew you to the life sciences and why did you choose your specific
My sixth grade science teacher, who taught more about biology and
life sciences in one year than I learned in the next 10 years combined,
inspired me with a ’fire in the belly’ about science, and biological
science in particular. Believe it or not, this is probably where
I first learned scientific rigor as well.
From the day I learned the intrinsic elegance of the ’Watson-Crick’
model of DNA structure, I have been fascinated with the chemical
code of life, and the field of genetics that it drives. My primary
focus on microbial genetics was due to the tractability of these
organisms to genetic manipulation, and the potential to develop
a global or system-wide understanding of the organism.
Why did you
decide to go beyond the lab into the classroom to teach?
I’m not sure who said if first, but there is much truth to the
statement “You don’t learn it until you teach it.” However,
this question really relates to why one would work in an academic
institution rather than in a government or industrial lab, where
one can perform more focused research without the other distractions
of academic life. The answer goes beyond the satisfaction of forming
and influencing young scientists. It involves the ability to perform
self-directed, truly creative research in an environment that encourages
it. It involves the necessity of the academic scientist to survive
or fail based on his or her own creative abilities. It involves
the intellectual challenge of working together in small groups of
students and mentors, to develop new ways to manipulate life and
address important biological questions. Academic life of the late
20th century has truly been a crucible of learning and research,
and this trend seems to be continuing in the 21st century. The results
of this academic research environment have been astonishing.
What is your philosophy of teaching? How do you teach and why
do it that way?
[This is a short answer
question??!]. I like to teach operationally, showing students
how specific experiments lead to particular conclusions. I teach
way because it is the way I learn best.
What is it you want your
students to leave your class with after it’s all over?
An appreciation for the complex elegance of biological systems,
an interest in learning more about them.
What do you want students
who may be interested in any of the life sciences to know?
The life sciences provide an incredible breadth of career opportunities.
The ’golden age’ of Life Sciences is just beginning, signaled by
the hallmark achievement of sequencing the human genome. It is difficult
to predict the changes that we will see in upcoming decades from
the current biomedical revolution spawned by the genomic work. Aside
from the technical advances, there are ethical decisions to be made.
It is critical that everyone be well-informed. Life scientists are
prepared to provide the technical information underlying these decisions,
but most agree they are not qualified to make the decisions. These
must be made by the lay public.
What do you get out of teaching?
I learn while I teach. Teaching forces a scientist to focus more
broadly than research. Research inherently requires focus. Focus
on a specific problem. Without focus, answers to experimental questions
are not attainable. Teaching forces scientists to look beyond his
or her specific experiment. This broadens the scientist’s outlook,
and provides him or her a resource he or she would not have otherwise
had. This is invigorating and rewarding, especially when the new
knowledge leads to new understanding or research avenues.
I see students learning. There comes a time in a student’s career
when he or she ’gets it.’ In the words of my graduate mentor, “they
take responsibility for” their own learning and/or research.
For some, this is a gradual process of maturation, for others it
is sudden. Either way, it is quite satisfying to be involved in.
Do you learn anything from your students?
Most of my teaching has been at the graduate and professional levels.
I have learned much from my students, both in knowledge of science
and knowledge of life. Most mentors would agree that they have not
succeeded if their students don’t at some point transcend them in
their depth of knowledge in their research. Thus, learning and teaching
are both two-way streets: mentor teaches student, but at some point
mentor learns from student. This is how the partnership succeeds.
What do you do in your “free” time? Do you have any
interesting or unusual hobbies?
My current ’hobby’ or avocation is my three and a half year old
daughter, Joana. She is truly the ’light of my life.’ Otherwise,
we love Brazil (my wife’s native country), and spend several weeks
there every year. Before Joana, we traveled more extensively. Now,
we are less adventurous, primarily for lack of energy.
I love languages, but can only really speak Portuguese and French.
We go to every opera we can. My favorite is probably Don Giovanni,
but I would like to see the full Ring Cycle someday. I have always
liked water sports, including swimming, snorkeling and diving, and
winter sports, including skiing, skating and hockey.
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