Center for Excellence Honoree: Alan Smits

Alan SmitsAt the beginning of one of his physiology lectures, Professor Allan Smits tells his students, "Every person should fall in love with a molecule, and mine is hemoglobin."

"They all look at me like I'm kind of strange, like I'm kind of crazy," Smits said with a chuckle. "But they're thinking, 'OK, I'll listen to him and find out what that's all about.' And by the time they've completed the course, they know why."

To keep his courses lively, Smits employs a sometimes-quirky approach to science and a good-natured sense of humor. He was recently named as an outstanding professor by Quinnipiac's Center for Excellence in Teaching and Service to Students, which encourages, supports and recognizes superior teaching and service to students at Quinnipiac. Smits and five of his colleagues will be recognized at the Center for Excellence in Teaching and Service to Students' annual event on Thursday, Oct. 20, in the Recreation Center.

In addition to Smits, the other honorees are:

· Carrie Bulger, associate professor of psychology

· James Cavallaro, facilities superintendent

· Professor Matthew O'Connor, chair of finance in the School of Business

· Professor Maritza Ramirez, manager of the Technology Department in the School of Law Center

• Linda Wooster, associate director of athletics.

"Dr. Smits has inspired me to want to teach," wrote student Theresa K. Gargano of Guilford Conn., a senior biology major, in a letter of nomination. "He has a gift of teaching and his passion is contagious ... I never want the class to end."

"He presents lectures by PowerPoint that are so thorough and well organized that there is no option for confusion ... I learned to love science in a way I never knew I could," she said.

Student Susanne Scofield of Clinton, Conn., a senior biology major, also holds Smits, who is chair of the biological sciences department, in high regard.

"Dr. Smits is a very hardworking, caring professor. He always tries to get everyone involved in lecture and everyone to understand," she said. "He has come in on weekends to hold study sessions to be sure we were all comfortable with the material before exams. He goes the extra mile because he wants all his students to learn and understand."

Smits grew up in California, where he earned his bachelor's and master's degrees in biology from California State University. He earned a doctorate in physiology from the University of Kansas in 1984. Then he completed a three-year postdoctoral fellowship in pulmonary research at the University of Massachusetts at Amherst.

His first job was at SUNY-Purchase (now Purchase College). He spent the next eight years at the University of Texas at Arlington. Most of his work there involved research, but he did teach a biology class with 250 students.

"That's when I recognized my love of teaching," he said. "To hold the attention of 250 students, I had to do something unique, and that's been my mantra ever since. Just lecturing, offering passive learning, doesn't work."

He employs those skills -- as lecturer, discussion initiator and entertainer -- today at Quinnipiac, where he is beginning his ninth year.

"Instead of stepping back and rattling off knowledge, I ask my students a lot of questions, engage them in discussions and challenge them to think," he said. He said he isn't afraid to embarrass himself when discussing how the body functions.

"One of my favorite examples is describing a flushing toilet to equate the way a nerve impulse works," he said. "Years later, students still remember that one."

He said he devotes all his strength to keeping his classes lively and high-energy. "I'm physically tired after my classes," he said.

Being a good professor involves a lot more than just educating your students, Smits said. Sometimes he is a substitute parent or best friend.

"At the beginning of the year, I tell my students, 'I'm not just your professor but also your mentor, and you can talk to me any time about anything,' " he said. "I think it is important to let them know you're interested in their success."

Very often he counsels students on personal problems, academic dilemmas and career goals. He also lends a willing ear to students who aren't even in his classes, because they've been referred to him by their friends.

His favorite courses to teach are anatomy and physiology and research methods. His students are sophomores and a mix of pre-professionals, psychobiology and biology majors.

He offers them two pieces of advice. The first is: Get to know your professors and let them get to know you academically and personally. The second is to become involved in some type of research project/independent study, which allows students to develop their critical thinking skills and work closely with a professor.

Smits said he was surprised and pleased with his recognition as an outstanding professor.

"When President Lahey came to my office and said 'Congratulations,' my head was spinning. "I knew I'd been nominated for the award last spring, but then I almost forgot about it. I said, 'What for?' "

Gearing up for another semester, Smits said teaching isn't a field where one gains immediate satisfaction.

"During the course of the semester, I don't really know whether I'm getting my points across, although I have a feeling that I am," he said. "After the semester is over and you hear through the grapevine that you're a great professor, or your students recommend you to another student, that's a great feeling. That's when it all pays off."

In addition to his professional interests, Smits' enjoys spending time with his son, Sam, 15, a high school freshman. Smits' hobbies include cycling and aviation and he is working toward his glider pilot license.

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