The DNA of Great Teaching

The DNA of Great Teaching

Chris Korey

Chris Korey, the 2010 recipient of the College’s newly named William V. Moore Faculty-Scholar Award, proves that the building block of a successful learning experience is shared discovery.

by Alicia Lutz ’98
Illustrations by Alberto Seveso

Chris Korey’s lab is where a sassy poster shouting, “Viva La Diva!” and a more subdued notice sighing, “I wish my hair could borrow volume from my butt,” are posted on a fruit fly incubator. A “Get Out of Hell Free” card and a comparative analysis of ninjas vs. professors are taped up next to maps of the human genome. That classic dorm-room flair Magnetic Poetry makes statements like, “the neurotransmitter says lets synapse under our hypothalamus.”

It’s where college students are scientists. And where Korey shows them exactly what they have to discover.

“We start with just getting them used to the lab, what’s going on in there, the research we’re doing,” says the associate professor of biology, who typically oversees the independent studies of three students at a time – introducing them to their projects when they’re juniors and mentoring them through their research, all the way to graduation. “I train them to a point, but they take over once they feel comfortable doing it on their own. It’s their project, not mine.”

The projects are all part of Korey’s ongoing research program that studies the fruit fly as a model system for the molecular genetics of neurological disease – specifically, Batten Disease, a rare pediatric neurodegenerative disorder that eventually leaves the afflicted blind and bedridden with severe mental deterioration. The long-term goal is to determine what’s going wrong with the genes that cause the disorder (which are shared by fruit flies and humans alike), thereby opening up therapeutic possibilities for patients down the road. The short-term goal is to expose students to molecular biology, neurobiology, genetics and cell biology – to give them a real, practical, meaningful taste of what it’s like to be a scientist.

That means working full time in the lab for 10 weeks during the summer, writing grants to pay for travel to neuroscience meetings, presenting their work at conferences and even becoming authors in peer-reviewed publications.

“Everything they might do if they want to go on and research, they can try,” says Korey, estimating that about half of the 22 students who have worked in his lab since he came to the College in 2003 have gone on to pursue careers in scientific research. “Even if it’s not for them, they get the experience of being a scientist. It’s all about giving them a full range of experience through these different opportunities.”

Opportunities, for example, like presenting their work to their peers at the annual Symposium for Young Neuroscientists and Professors of the Southeast and even to the 27,000 experts in attendance at the national Society for Neuroscience meeting every year.

“Imagine the change in confidence for these students, returning from a conference where they successfully and independently discussed their research with leading neurobiologists,” marvels biology chair Jaap Hillenius.

But even for the students who don’t present there, the SFN conference is “a good meeting because a lot of very well-known neuroscientists give talks about broad topics, and, at the same time, you get to see all the aspects of the research,” says Korey. “They get to see science on display.”

Back in the lab, of course, students are on a much more intimate level with science – authoring articles in peer-reviewed publications and getting to know their research better than anyone else.

“Chris treats his undergraduate collaborators as professional colleagues,” says Hillenius, “and so that’s what they become.”

Take Tiffany Williams ’10, for example. When she first arrived in Korey’s lab, she was struggling with her science classes, doubting that she wanted to continue studying biology. It wasn’t long before she was presenting her research at the Louis Stokes South Carolina Alliance for Minority Participation program’s undergraduate research conference, winning second prize the first year and first prize the second year.

“I couldn’t believe what I was accomplishing,” says Williams, who went on to win the 2009 ExCEL Award for the School of Sciences and Mathematics Student of the Year. “And it’s all because of Dr. Korey. He showed me that all my limitations were in my head.”

“There’s also a little bit of tough love there,” says Alexis Smith ’06, remembering that, at one point during her two years working in his lab, Korey suggested she consult with researchers at Harvard to get their expertise. “That was really scary for me, but Chris just said, ‘Why not? Call them!’ It made me realize that just because I was ‘just’ a college student didn’t mean my research was any less important. Science is science – no matter who the scientist is.”

That’s exactly what Korey hopes all of his students come to realize. Because, after all, as long as they’re in his lab, they’re scientists – scientists who might abruptly abandon a vial of fruit flies for an impromptu dance-off or impulsively flee the lab altogether for a quick gelato run, but scientists nonetheless.

Question Everything

For Chris Korey, being a scientist means constantly learning, always discovering – being, in a word, a student. And what better place to be a student than in a college classroom?

“I go in the classroom to teach, sure – that’s my job. But ultimately, we’re all there to learn,” says Korey, who carries a notebook to class and jots down any idea that comes up and needs further investigation. “I like getting those questions that I can’t immediately answer. I end up learning something that I may not otherwise have ever considered. I like that. I like that they make sure there’s always something more for me to learn.”

It’s another reason Korey enjoys working primarily with undergraduates.

“They have the ability to come up with ideas that are totally out of left field,” he says. “Once you become indoctrinated into your own field, you stop asking things like how we know what we know and why we don’t know some things. I never want to feel like I’m making assumptions or taking knowledge for granted. I rely on my students to keep me on my toes.”

Which explains why the very first thing Alexis Smith ever heard come out of Korey’s mouth was, “Challenge everything I tell you. If I say the sky is blue, don’t assume that’s true. You need to know why. Question everything.”

“It’s that single statement that stuck with me,” says Smith, who was a freshman in Korey’s Intro to Biology at the time and is now applying for ER residencies. “I’ve challenged everything I’ve been told ever since then, and it made me a better student in college and in med school. And I think it will make me a better doctor.”

And, for his own part, it’s certainly made Korey a better teacher.

“Chris is always stretching, continually innovating and experimenting, always trying to develop new ways to teach,” says Hillenius. “Particularly impressive is the meaningful way he’s able to incorporate technology.”

Using podcasts, video conferencing, wiki-assignments, blogs, Skype, i-Clicker response systems and other technology, Korey does everything he can to reach out to the technology-minded students.

Chris Korey

"Everything they might do if the want to go on and research, they can try. Even if It's not for them. They get the experience of being a scientist. It's all about giving them a full range of experience through different opportunities." - Chris Korey

 

“When I find something that works well for a particular topic, I integrate that in,” he shrugs, adding that he tries to keep lecturing to a minimum. “I find that when it’s just me yapping up there, I don’t know how much they take in. Certainly some things I haven’t figured out how to do without lecture, but when I can, I try to adapt things so the class is a little more interactive.”

And it doesn’t get any more interactive than the inventive approach he’s taken to the freshman seminar on personal genomics he’s teaching this semester: He has submitted his own DNA to a commercial genomics firm, presenting himself as an object of discussion about the increasingly popular business of direct-to-consumer genetic testing.

“We’re watching this genetics revolution, where, 10, 20 years from now, these students will be going to the doctor with their genetic information – it will be available, and we may even be using it to create personalized medicines,” says Korey. “So the class will explore what we should know now, what kind of protection there should be for this information, and then the ethical, legal and social implications it raises.”

Revealing not only what part of the world your ancestors lived in, but also any genetic disorder that could compromise your life or that of your children, genome sequencing raises plenty of concerns.

“What you find out in these reports might change the way you live your life; you may make different reproductive decisions,” points out Korey. “And it can change what we think we know about ourselves and our identities. I’m really excited to see where we’ll go with this topic. I’ll be learning right there alongside the students.”

And, as unusual as this approach might sound, it’s just the kind of tactic Korey has always wanted to take, and hopes to continue to take in the future.

“Chris is always going the extra mile to try something new or unusual or to make abstract material as real as possible for students,” says Hillenius. “His courses are a rigorous synthesis of theory and real-world problems, and he’s always looking for new and interesting courses to teach.”

One such example is the four-week neuroscience seminar that he and assistant professor of psychology Mike Ruscio have established in Germany. As the new co-directors of the College’s Neuroscience Program, Korey and Ruscio traveled to Germany last May to feel out the possibilities for the course, and – through the SFN–affiliated Faculty for Undergraduate Neuroscience (FUN), for which Korey formerly served as president – were able to provide undergraduates nationwide with the opportunity to study in Berlin and Munich next summer. The goal is to expand the course down the road to create a credit-earning overseas experience for students studying neuroscience.

“I just want to make sure students have as many opportunities to experience new things as possible. You never know what might speak to them – what experience might change everything for them,” says Korey, adding that this possibility of exposing students to potentially life-changing opportunities makes working with undergraduates even more motivating for him. “They’re still learning who they are and what’s out there, figuring out what they want to do with their lives. It’s kind of exciting, because, you know, discovering your passion and what you want to do in life is a pretty big deal.”

You could say it’s the discovery of a lifetime.