exploring complexity in life

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John Ryan, Ph.D.
Assistant Professor, Department of Biology
Principal Investigator, Laboratory of Cellular and Molecular Immunology
College of Humanities and Sciences
E-mail:jjryan@vcu.edu
http://www.has.vcu.edu/bio/people/bios/ryan.html

Interview
What drew you to the life sciences and why did you choose your specific field?
My interest in how things work drew me to science. Things that weren’t alive didn’t keep me intrigued very long, so I got into biology. My interest in staying away from sick people pushed me towards laboratory research. My interest in controlling gene expression, as it relates to the immune system’s function (asthma and cancer, specifically) got me here.

Why did you decide to go beyond the lab into the classroom to teach?
I love the feeling of transferring knowledge to people. One of our biggest problems (I think) is a lack of education in the field of health sciences. When people go to the doctor, they generally don’t know what questions to ask, what treatment options are available, or how treatment will affect them. I find that doctors don’t especially like these questions and a lot of time don’t really have the answers I want. Beyond that, I really, really enjoy educating students who will go on to be clinicians. I hope that their exposure to research will make them “think outside the box” when dealing with their patients.

What is your philosophy of teaching? How do you teach and why do it that way?
In the classroom I play an extrovert (I’m not), like the whole thing is an acting experience. The jokes are rehearsed, the delivery is polished — I prep like crazy before I teach. Even in areas where I am well-versed, I will study about two hours for every hour of lecture. I try hard to learn as many student names as possible, and use the names in class. I try to make each student feel like I am teaching “right at him”. I find teaching fun but exhausting. I don’t know how the average high school teacher makes it through the day.

What is it you want your students to leave your class with after it’s all over?
A sense of how things fit together. I teach only upper-level undergrad classes or graduate-level courses, so I try to draw on other classes they have had, and get them to synthesize things into a big picture. I want them to leave feeling like they learned something, not memorized something.

What do you want students who may be interested in any of the life sciences to know?
That this is an exciting time. There are so many questions to ask and answer. There are lots of interesting job opportunities. Three years ago I couldn’t have told you what a bioinformaticist was, let alone define proteomics, genomics, or biological complexity. This stuff is all commonplace, or nearly so, right now. If you like biology, this is a great time take on the Life Sciences, and it’s fun too.

What do you get out of teaching?
In a selfish way, I get to understand the things I care about better than I ever would have without teaching. Also, I get to be involved, in a small way, in pushing people towards their goals. Teachers are stepping stones, cheerleaders, evangelists. I love the journey. My proudest moments are when students call me back after years and tell me what they’re up to, and how far they’ve gotten. I get to feel like I helped get them there in a small way.

Do you learn anything from your students?
Oh good Lord, yes. I answer about half the students’ questions with “Well, I don’t know, let me think about that ...” They ask great questions, and I am forced to really stay on my toes. But there’s a lot more to it than that: I have learned a lot about myself and about life in general. Things like how strong people can be (ever teach recent immigrants from war-torn countries?), how the small stuff just doesn’t matter (ever teach a student recovering from a head injury?), and how almost everyone is trustworthy, hard working, and just wants a chance to succeed. I sometimes feel like I get a great snapshot of America every time I walk into the classroom.

What do you do in your “free” time?
I missed the last two questions: I have three kids under age 5 at home. This is my ’second job,’ and it’s about all I have time for right now. As a father and homeowner, I like to paint, tile, caulk, watch “Dragpn Tales” and “George Shrinks,” surf the gerbil tubes at the Burger King playland, pretend I am a phenomenal guitar player (my Itsy-Bitsy Spider rendition is untouchable!), and play the role of the strongest, tallest, loudest man my kids have ever met. Until they are 13, I am superman. I think they believe I could fly if I wanted to. In reality, I am just an underweight mediocre distance runner who spends a lot of time with microscopes and people in their 20’s trying to “find themselves”. Go figure!

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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