exploring complexity in life

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Ronald Merrell, M.D., F.A.C.S.
Chairman and Stuart McGuire Professor of Surgery
Department of Surgery, School of Medicine
E-mail: rcmerrel@vcu.edu

Interview
What drew you to the life sciences and why did you choose your specific field?
Living systems combine physics, chemistry, and mathematics to make something which is dynamic, evolving, self-sustaining and the greatest challenge to the intellect to understand and manage. I have always been attracted to life science since high school science fairs! My specific field of surgery involves a physical engagement with our questions and problems in life science as we actually grasp the disease and attempt to remove it, or modify living tissue in repair or replacement. As a very bad pianist I enjoyed manual challenges and perhaps I am thereby a better surgeon. My research work in telemedicine and space medicine involves management of medical situations at distance through telecommunications and robotics. I was attracted to this set of problems from a love for technology and a belief that distance should not determine outcome in the treatment of disease. You should have the same advantage of medical care no matter where you live or who you are.

Why did you decide to go beyond the lab into the classroom to teach?
Hmmm. I have been in a university environment almost all my life. I never thought of exploring scientific matters outside the context of teaching.

What is your philosophy of teaching? How do you teach and why do it that way?
I want my students to use science as a way to logically deal with the unknown. This is different from using science as some enormous database of answers. I hope students will share my respect for the questions over the temporary answers we get in science. My philosophy of teaching is to empower students with new knowledge and the ability to seek their own knowledge in future.

What is it you want your students to leave your class with after it’s all over?
A sense of wonder at the beauty and knowable detail of living systems.

What do you want students who may be interested in any of the life sciences to know?
You can be a life scientist!! there is ample room and the problems are legion.

What do you get out of teaching?
A sense that perhaps the continuum of science has been made more likely.

Do you learn anything from your students?
Students lack the burden of all the negative data and failed experiments, which can drag on an investigator in considering new approaches. Student questions come out of the blue and can be fresh insight I never consider or left behind inappropriately. Students give me courage and hope.

What do you do in your “free” time?
Read fiction, enjoy music, travel.

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Virginia Commonwealth University
VCU Life Sciences
P.O. Box 842030
1000 W. Cary St.
Richmond, Virginia 23284-2030
Phone: (804) 827-5600
Email: lifesci@vcu.edu
Updated: 09/29/2011