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Photographs by
Richard Kelly

There are so many aspects to a university—facilities, research grants, school rankings, scholarships, and sports, just to name a few. For most undergraduates, though, it’s a teacher who leaves the most lasting impression.

Those Who Can

Meghan Holohan

Light shines on flasks of blue-green algae causing the room to glow eerily in spots, while darkness envelops the rest of the lab. The receptacles jitter on the flat platform shakers used to help grow the algae, which are really bacteria. The rest of the dorm sleeps as Graham Hatfull pads into the lab, maybe in his slippers or after drinking a cup of coffee, so he can take measurements of the growth. For some time he’s been exposing the little life forms, commonly known as pond scum, to oxygen—sometimes he gives it too much, sometimes he gives it too little, and sometimes he just lets the algae have a normal amount of oxygen. It’s not that he’s particularly interested in algae, blue-green or otherwise, but he wants to do research. He wants to delve into molecular genetics.

His school, Westfield College, is small (though part of the University of London, it’s located in the northern part of the city), so there aren’t many people offering research opportunities. Then Hatfull discovers Peter Fay, a Westfield biology professor. Hatfull spends a summer in Fay’s lab, investigating how the slimy plant-like organisms create nitrogen to fix cells, depending on how much oxygen they get. While Hatfull might have considered biology only because it was the subject he was best at in high school, in college, he flourishes in the lab.

“When I went off to college, the important thing about doing this project was not necessarily examining the autostructure of [blue-green algae]; the important thing was that I had an opportunity in what was essentially a risk-free circumstance to try doing science. I think I started this originally as a project, and I was supposed to get some credits toward my degree, and ended up doing it in the summers because it was fun and I enjoyed doing it. And, I ended up stretching what was supposed to be a 10-week project into two years,” he says.

Years after graduating from Westfield (now called Queen Mary, University of London), Hatfull, Pitt’s Eberly Family Professor of Biotechnology, in the Department of Biological Sciences, sits in the corner of his lab in Crawford Hall on the Oakland campus. Using expressive hand gestures, he explains his work to two students. He’s fluent in bacteria phages, viruses that infect bacteria. Phages pop up everywhere—hiding in dirt, leaves, stagnant water. Phages are the most abundant life form on the planet.

While other scientists crawl through the jungle searching for unnamed species, Hatfull combs through Pittsburgh composts for his specimens. Certainly, new mammals could provide clues to evolution, but Hatfull’s phages, though tiny, could provide insight into the workings of the world. Understanding how they work might help cure diseases, such as tuberculosis. That disease, though treatable, kills two million people a year, according to the World Health Organization. Learning the evolution and structure of TB, a bacteria phage, could help scientists discover better treatments.

In the pursuit of phages, maps of genetic code line the hallways outside Hatfull’s lab. A cream-colored fridge is stocked with petri dishes full of bacteria, the phages eating holes in the cloudy gelatin-like bacteria fields.

Students, from high school through graduate school, work in the lab. Hatfull is one of the few professors who has high school students assisting him. Late on a Friday afternoon, a small group of students are in the lab working with phages, some measuring growth, others adulterating bacteria. Marisa Pedulla, the lab’s research associate and one of Hatfull’s former students, shows those in the lab how to prepare their petri dishes.

Kosta Pajcini, a CAS junior majoring in biological sciences, who was originally from Albania, holds a small petri dish in his hand as he swipes a thin wire across the bacteria field. He’s preparing to infect the field with the phage. As he does, a graduate student across the lab bench gives a few suggestions.

For the experiment, Pajcini had collected rainwater in a bucket in his backyard and made several treks through Oakland, scooping up dirt. He always rushed his finds back to the lab in Crawford Hall, anxious to see if he isolated any phages. Months and months passed. His tubes of grime and soil grew, but he didn’t find a phage. He wondered if he ever would.

Pedulla encouraged Pajcini by telling him that it took her a while to locate her first phage, and it took Hatfull himself five years to publish a paper on the phage L-5, the first phage he examined.

While the students follow their phages from discovery to genetic coding, even naming them (the Hatfull lab has phages called Corndog and Barnyard, among others), their research helps Hatfull’s overall goal of understanding the evolution of bacteria phages.

Pajcini finally found a phage and feels very fortunate to have worked in Hatfull’s lab. He plans to go to graduate school for biology and thinks his experience will make him more attractive to his first school of choice, Stanford University.

As he shows off petri dishes with holey phage-infected bacteria and tubes of dirt, Pajcini explains that he likes how the lab is organized: The grad students help the undergrads, the undergrads help the high school students, and once a week everyone comes together to share accomplishments. Pajcini says that when he explains how to do something to someone else, he learns more, too. That doesn’t surprise Hatfull:

“The environment we have here—where as an undergraduate you have the benefit of a terrific education with really great teachers, and you have access to some of the very best scientific research that is going on—it’s wonderful from an undergraduate’s point of view, and it’s very challenging from a faculty’s point of view because you have a lot of balls you have to keep in the air.”

Just last fall, Hatfull learned he won the inaugural Howard Hughes Medical Institute’s grant for outstanding teaching. He is one of only 20 professors nationwide to win the award. He hopes to use the four-year, $1 million award to hire more students.

Students filter in, climbing the stairs to the seats in “peanut heaven” of the Chevron classroom. Chemistry Professor Peter Siska pulls glass tubes, trays, and gallon jugs of liquid off a cart, arranging them on the black counter in the pit of the classroom. The students don’t seem to notice Siska working, as a low rumble of conversation reverberates off the walls.

He starts the class, emphasizing what the students learned the previous week. On the board he draws a chemical equation. The class scribbles the line in their notebooks.

He pulls out a chunk of dry ice, setting it on the black metal counter. The ice squeals and scoots across the surface as he grabs a cruet of distilled water, pouring it into a tall beaker. Much like a mad scientist, he starts adding ingredients—universal indicator, then some ammonia.

“Let’s just add a little more of this,” he says, cackling like a B-movie villain, while adding a dash of ammonia. Grabbing the ice and turning off the lights, he drops the dry ice into the brew, and the water turns from blue to red in a smoking flash. The students literally sit on the edge of their seats.

Siska isn’t just an entertainer, even though he has been known to blow things up, once ruining a ceiling. He is showing them how the equations work. He shows them chemistry.

But Siska values the learning process as much as the students who crowd outside his office during his office hours, waiting for him to explain the latest chemistry problems.

“A lot of what I’ve done is student- inspired,” he says. “I’ve read in several places—and I think it’s really true—in research, if you can’t do something a freshman chemist can understand, then you’re not doing important research. General chemistry is where the ideas about chemistry are brought to the students’ attention. Unless what you’re doing brings new ideas to that, then your research is really sort of ivory tower.”

When Siska first started teaching in the 1970s, he recalls standing in front of lecture rooms with almost 400 students staring at him. It bothered him that he couldn’t reach every student, so one of his colleagues suggested the best way to get everyone’s attention was with experiments. Today, as a professor of chemistry, his classes are drastically smaller, but he still feels illustration is the best way to teach chemistry.

“It’s not just you and the chalk,” he says, adding that the demonstrative element in his lectures helps excite his students for labs where they actually learn and experience the chemical reactions.

Sure, Siska says he stays at the University rather than working in the private sector because of the students, but the faculty add to the creative atmosphere. He quickly runs through a list of past and current professors he considers excellent teachers whose research he admired.

“Back in the old days, this is not so true now, your ability to teach anything wasn’t really as important as your ability to get things done in the laboratory,” says Siska, who was winner of the Chancellor’s Distinguished Teaching Award in 1987.

Siska and Hatfull aren’t the only professors investing in students. According to a recent study conducted by the Higher Education Research Institute at UCLA, professors at universities nationwide are spending more time with their students.

In the dark-hued room, light flashes as Barbara McCloskey—associate professor in the Department of History of Art and Architecture—shows a slide of the sleek, bald head of Mussolini with the word “Duce” appearing over and over again in the background. The word repetition, she says, is to give the impression of a cheering crowd. Even Mussolini’s head was symbolic, she explains to her Art in World War II class. The smooth egg-shaped cranium represents the future, modernity.

The 20 or so students take notes in the dim light of the projector. Jamie Boyle, a senior majoring in studio arts and art history, sits in McCloskey’s class, the third class she has taken with the professor. After class, a group of students follows McCloskey to her office, asking questions, telling stories.

Three years ago, Boyle took a survey course in modern art with McCloskey; the auditorium was packed with students. McCloskey stood on the stage lecturing to the masses, but Boyle felt like McCloskey directly connected with her—maybe it was McCloskey’s casual delivery, maybe it was her lack of airs. Boyle recalls reading the course packet, noticing McCloskey’s selected readings from feminist theorists and radical thinkers (people who argued ideas such as abstract expressionism was a form of cultural politics). Boyle was excited. Finally, she was seeing a different view of art history—no more stuffy opinions.

McCloskey relishes that kind of connection. “I like the challenge of teaching students who have this mixed background and trying to work with them. I do have a commitment to that,” she says. “All the students are important, in one way or another.”

McCloskey knows the importance of a good teacher—without the help of a good professor she might not have passed high school math. In high school she confronted the idea of the new math with horror. All her life she had divided, multiplied, added, and subtracted in one particular way, a way that probably seemed logical, orderly. But then, because of the new curriculum, she had to learn a new way to approach math.

As the sun would sink into the sky, she and her father sat together at the dining room table. Her father, Joseph McCloskey (FAS ’48, ’40, CAS ’38), a history professor, started teaching as a graduate student at Pitt. When McCloskey was in high school her father happened to be changing disciplines from history to business. The two struggled together, she laughs, recalling how she got an A in math, thanks to her father’s help.

McCloskey believes that her style of teaching—which appeals so much to students like Boyle—originated from those dining room sessions with Dad. Sure enough, students seem to follow McCloskey. Boyle, for instance, is interested in interactive monuments, mentioning the Vietnam Memorial and the Monument against Fascism in Hamburg, Germany. The idea of collective memorials, which seem to invite viewer participation, excites Boyle. She admits, though, that McCloskey’s classes contributed to this interest, and she is thrilled to work with McCloskey again. Boyle adds that she is considering becoming a professor, too.

If she does, it’s a safe bet that she will approach her vocation much like her favorite teacher. “My big goal,” says McCloskey, “is just to make my students knowledgeable at the very least about their assumptions, to have them be able to talk intelligently about what they think.”

Last year, the Middle States Commission on Higher Education noted that the University has strengthened its undergraduate programs, with improved academic advising, a faculty with a strong “teaching ethos,” and collaborations between disciplines. This renewed effort, according to the report, “enhances the reputation of the institution as a whole and benefits all units.”

The students of Hatfull, Siska, and McCloskey wouldn't disagree.

Meghan Holohan is a contributor to this magazine.

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