May 21, 2007
Mary Ann Travis
Neuroscience and classical studies: Subjects can't get much more diverse than one that explores the latest frontiers in brain studies and the other that looks back to understand monuments of antiquity.
Science and art came together at Tulane University Commencement on Saturday (May 19) when Gary Dohanich, professor of psychology and neuroscience, and Susann Lusnia, assistant professor of classical studies, received Weiss Presidential Fellowship awards.
The fellowships are awarded in recognition of exemplary teaching of undergraduate students and are named in honor of Suzanne and Stephen Weiss.
The fellowships include a stipend of $5,000 a year for four years to support research activities of the faculty members. Besides both being great teachers, Dohanich and Lusnia share feelings in common about receiving the award.
"I'm humbled," says Dohanich. "There are a lot of Tulane faculty members who are as deserving or more so than I am." When Lusnia learned about the award, she says, "I was a bit overwhelmed. It was so touching that my students nominated me."
Dohanich and Lusnia were nominated for the award by their students and then selected by a provost's committee of faculty members and administrators. Criteria for the award are that recipients must make a distinctive contribution to undergraduate teaching and that they influence and help students beyond the formal role of teacher.
Pressed to explain why he was selected to win best teaching honors, Dohanich points to the neuroscience program, which he instituted in 2000 after years of helping students self-design neuroscience majors.
But he says he cannot take all the credit for the achievements of the program that currently boasts almost 200 neuroscience majors and offers a four-plus-one program in which Tulane students can earn a master's degree in neuroscience by completing an extra year after earning a bachelor's degree. The program also offers a one-year master's degree in neuroscience for students who did not attend Tulane as undergraduates.
Dohanich singles out Beth Wee, co-director of the neuroscience program, as critical to its success. And that success can be measured in hard numbers: Seventy-five percent of the neuroscience majors at Tulane who apply to medical school get into medical school. It's gratifying to Dohanich when students who've gone to medical school write to him, telling him how well-prepared they are and how valuable a Tulane neuroscience education is.
"It's nice to get thanked," he says. But the best thing about teaching is the actual teaching, says Dohanich. "Being in front of a class and seeing people learn. That 'aha!' moment when they get it -- when they understand the information." Teachers and students should be partners in learning, says Dohanich. They should have the same goal -- to bring each individual to his or her highest level of academic achievement.
For Lusnia, teaching Roman art and archaeology is a joy because it is a subject she loves. "I try to make it interesting to my students," she says. "They may not appreciate it as much as I do but it is inherently interesting." Lusnia's students often are not classical studies majors but they will see Roman monuments and art in books and in film. And some students will eventually travel abroad and visit, say, the ruins of Pompeii.
"I aim to make the ancient world come alive for my students," says Lusnia. "Study of the classical world is a valuable part of every student's learning. I want them to understand the deeply rooted connections between the ancient and modern worlds."
Lusnia enjoys hearing from students after they have taken her classes. Some tell her how they have used their class experiences while visiting museums or archaeological sites in Rome, Pompeii or the Etruscan tombs, enthusiastically sharing the knowledge they gained in class with their friends and family. "In the humanities it is often difficult to quantify success in teaching, but when I hear that students are finding ways to apply my courses to their life experiences, I consider that a mark of success," Lusnia says.
As part of the fellowship honors, Dohanich and Lusnia received Weiss Presidential medals at the commencement ceremony. They will keep the designation of Weiss fellow throughout their service at Tulane. It is the first time the Weiss fellowship has been awarded.
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