Highest honors to Wittkopp, named Arthur F. Thurnau Professor
Professor Patricia J. Wittkopp is one of six faculty members honored for outstanding contributions to undergraduate education as this year's recipients of Arthur F. Thurnau Professorships.
Criteria for Thurnau Professorships include a strong commitment to students and to teaching and learning, excellence in teaching, innovations in teaching and learning, a strong commitment to working effectively with a diverse student body, a demonstrable impact on students' intellectual or artistic development, and contributions to undergraduate education beyond the classroom, studio or lab. The appointments were approved by the University of Michigan’s Board of Regents and become effective July 1, 2016.
The professorships are named after alumnus Arthur F. Thurnau and supported by the Thurnau Charitable Trust. Recipients receive $20,000 to support teaching activities, including travel, books, equipment and graduate student support. The titles will be retained throughout their U-M careers.
Wittkopp is professor of ecology and evolutionary biology, professor in the Honors Program, and professor of molecular, cellular, and developmental biology, College of Literature, Science, and the Arts. Following are excerpts from multiple Thurnau nominations.
“Almost everyone on the faculty at the University of Michigan impresses me in one way or another,” said Tim McKay, Arthur F. Thurnau Professor of Physics, Astronomy, and Education, director of the LSA Honors Program. “Professor Patricia Wittkopp is one of the few at the top of my list in every way.
“A spectacular researcher, she runs a vibrant, highly productive research lab working on one of the most exciting topics in biology. A deeply committed, dedicated teacher, she regularly takes on the most difficult assignments, completely rethinking some of biology’s most challenging courses. Perhaps most important, Trisha is a leader, setting a new standard for excellence among her peers.
“I first heard of her through her work reforming Bio 305 – Introduction to Genetics. This course is both completely central to the education of biologists and extremely difficult: students approach it with trepidation. I learned of Trisha’s reforms in this class while reviewing applications for earlier teaching awards and was deeply impressed. This was a huge, daunting job for anyone to take on – she volunteered to do it as a new assistant professor. I was amazed.
“Since that time, I have found opportunities to work with Trisha in two different roles: as director of the LSA Honors Program, and as the PI of the REBUILD science education reform project. Trisha is a graduate of the Honors Program, and I have asked her to help us out many times. She has spoken at Honors Kickoff, telling our 500 incoming students about some of the weirdness of genetic development, visited with my Honors Summer Fellows Program to talk about work-life balance and running a research program, and even given our graduation speech at Crisler Arena. I return to Trisha over and over because I so admire the life she leads – it’s a perfect example for our students. A first generation college student who came to Michigan without privilege or wealth, she’s made it to the top in one of the most competitive parts of biology. This background makes her an ideal mentor for students of all kinds, but especially those who need it the most.
"Two years ago, we launched the Honors Core Curriculum – a set of a dozen courses spread across the three divisions of the college, taught by a hand-picked subset of our very best teachers. Trisha was my first choice to teach a natural science course for the core. The class she has created, Biology and Society, explores the nature and process of science, and how it migrates from the lab bench to headlines and eventually to public policy. This course is running now for the first time, and I can tell you that the students are really excited.
“I should note that Trisha developed this course while also working with Meg Duffy to substantially reform Bio 171, an even larger introductory course which they’re co-teaching this term. I don’t think one can ask for more evidence of a strong commitment to teaching and learning.
“Trisha has also been a central figure in interdepartmental efforts to foster STEM education reform. The REBUILD project has brought together the departments of physics, chemistry, both biologies, math, and astronomy in a three-year effort to increase the use of evidence-based methods in our introductory courses. Trisha has been involved from the start, helping to craft the proposal (which won a $2 million NSF grant) and serving on the REBUILD faculty committee.”
“Trisha is a thoughtful, engaged, and innovative teacher,” said EEB Professor Meg Duffy, who sat in on some of her classes to see her in action. “Her Genetics students were fully engaged, even though it was a very large lecture. Trisha had developed a teaching framework that we have since transferred to our Introductory Biology course. The students performed well on very challenging exams, and student feedback on the course was quite positive.
“When Trisha and I first taught Introductory Biology together in fall 2014, we adopted a course framework similar to the one she’d used in Genetics. This plan was based on pedagogy research showing the value of active classrooms and frequent quizzing in student learning.
“Trisha’s teaching-related efforts have not been restricted to undergraduates in these courses. All three of these courses are large lecture courses, and involve large numbers of GSIs. Trisha has worked closely with these GSIs, helping them develop their teaching skills. Based on my observations of Trisha in these three classes, it is clear that she has high standards for her students, and that she sets up the course structure in a way that encourages them to meet them. Moreover, she has helped other faculty do the same.”
“Dr. Wittkopps’s stunning collection of teaching awards clearly represents the sustained and widespread recognition by the U-M community at large of a prodigious teaching talent,” said Professor Diarmaid Ó Foighil, EEB chair. “It also begs the question – what makes her so good? It seems to me that there are many parts to that answer, but I would start with passion, intelligence and motivation. Dr. Wittkopp burns with an infectious passion to be the most effective educator possible and it seems that each incremental pedagogical improvement or innovation only spurs her on to greater heights.
“As our current EEB department associate chair for graduate studies, Dr. Wittkopp has done a great job of providing extracurricular training for our graduate students, via informal workshops, in vital skills such as negotiation, time management, presentation strategies and leadership. The sheer numbers receiving training in her lab are quite impressive: six postdocs (all of whom earned external fellowships), 12 graduate students, and 27 undergraduates. Of the undergraduates, three have written honors thesis based on their research in Dr. Wittkopp’s lab and one of these was awarded ‘highest honors,’ a distinction typically given to only one to two graduating seniors each year.
“Trisha is a world-renowned evolutionary geneticist who has made fundamental contributions to our understanding of the evolution of gene regulation and its role in morphological variations within and between species.” Regarding the selectivity of the Thurnau recognition, Ó Foighil noted, “Trisha's award doubles the EEB count. Until now, our only Thurnau Professor has been John Vandermeer who received his in 1994.”
Wittkopp was one of undergraduate Jason Dowda’s first science professors at U-M for Introduction to Ecology and Evolutionary Biology. The course content interested Dowda and made the prospect of becoming a biology major more likely, but his early struggles with the course gave him doubts. He didn’t think his early scores reflected the time and effort he spent studying. During nearly every lecture, Wittkopp invited students to her office hours and so he went.
“She guided me towards efficient and effective methods for studying,” Dowda said. “She saw a potential in me to do well in this course that I did not believe was possible before. My turnaround as a student and an educated individual began.” He discovered his professor’s passion to ensure that students understood the concepts, to make a difference for the next generation of students, and that she was unafraid to connect with students on a personal level. He credits his success in this course and courses to follow on the advice and ensuing skills he gained from spending time in office hours with Wittkopp. “It was an innovation to learning for me. I found improved ways of learning class material that I had never experienced before.”
Adam Eickmeyer, currently a master’s student in health behavior and health education, took Wittkopp’s Genetics course (Biology 305) during winter 2014, and is currently a graduate student instructor for the Health Sciences Scholars Program. “I strive to be as skilled at, and passionate about, education as Dr. Wittkopp is, throughout the rest of my career in academia,” Eickmeyer said.
He was dreading taking Genetics. “I just had a horrible experience with organic chemistry the semester prior, and was really contemplating if I was cut out for STEM courses. Genetics made a profound impact in my decision to continue on a pre-medical track. The course was participatory (even in the large lecture), collaborative, and highly problem-based. As someone who had a poor preparation for U-M STEM in high school, this is the type of course I needed to thrive. And while I didn’t ace the course, I still counsel younger students that Genetics is hard, but I learned more in that class than most of my science classes at U-M. I developed a genuine interest in the subject and was able to realize how it impacted my life personally, as well as how it is integrated into the work I want to do in my future. I still use the knowledge gained in her course, and know that I will continue to use it well into my career as a physician (social-)scientist.”
Eickmeyer notes Wittkopp’s warm demeanor and said “there was never condescension, judgment, or belittling of a student who didn’t understand something. She genuinely wanted us to succeed, and would do her best to give us the tools to do so.”
“The one class that stood out above the rest was MCDB 404: Genetics, Development, and Evolution with Dr. Wittkopp,” said Xuan Ouyang, a 2008 U-M graduate with a bachelor’s of science degree in biology.
“The class was small enough (~20 students) that each one of us got to know Dr. Wittkopp well. Eschewing the conventional method of lecturing and assigning chapters out of a text, Dr. Wittkopp implemented learning by discussion. We learned by reading, comprehending, and discussing primary research literature from the field of evolution. Dr. Wittkopp facilitated the discussion; thus, we not only learned from her, but also from each other. She challenged us to think critically, to not just understand what a particular study achieved, but to also think about how a study could be enhanced, and what new questions the results pose.”
Ouyang recently applied to medical school and credits his success on the MCAT exam, in part, to Wittkopp’s instruction. “Even though it has been seven years since I took her class, the way she instructed us to analyze literature has stuck with me through the years.” The new 2015 MCAT revision emphasizes the ability to interpret various passages taken from current research in many fields. “She has not only had an impact on my studies while a student at the university, but on the person I am today.”