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Eric Lander Teaches?

John Hawks points out that Eric Lander has been appointed to co-chair Obama’s Council of Advisers on Science and Technology along with science adviser John Holdren and Nobel Laureate Harold Varmus. Here’s how the AP article describes Lander:

Lander, who teaches at both MIT and Harvard, founded the Whitehead Institute-MIT Center for Genome Research in 1990, which became part of the Broad Institute in 2003. A leading researcher in the Human Genome Project, he and his colleagues are using the findings to explore the molecular mechanisms behind human disease.

Wait, Eric Lander teaches? Really? It turns out he does:

In addition to his research, Eric is an enthusiastic teacher. He has taught MIT’s core introductory biology course for a decade and, in 1992, won the Baker Memorial Award for Undergraduate Teaching at MIT. He has lectured to both scientific and lay audiences about the medical and social implications of genetics, and delivered a special Millennium Lecture at the White House in 2000.
[link]

But this really points out flaw in how the general public, including journalists, understand academia. If I were to describe Eric Lander’s professional appointment (or nearly any other research professors appointment, for that matter), “teaching” would not be the first item on the list. In fact, a lot of profs don’t teach at all. Research comes first, then advising grad students and post-docs (which is a kind of teaching, but not the in classroom variety that I imagine most people picture when they say so-and-so teaches at a university) and getting grants (which could be bundled, along with writing papers, under the umbrella of “research”), followed by teaching (if they do that at all). However, most folks only saw their professors as undergrads (if they went to college at all), and in that environment they were teaching classes.

Eric Lander is a professor, not a teacher. And he’s also taking steps into politics under the upcoming administration. This has got me wondering whether he may move into the position of director of the NHGRI (a post vacated by Francis Collins earlier this year).

Comments

  1. #1 Justin Wagner
    December 20, 2008

    The first time I ever heard the name Eric Lander was while watching lecture #6 of the MIT OpenCourseWare “Intro to Biology” course (its on YouTube now):
    http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9iaoypSrIT0

  2. #2 Dior
    December 20, 2008

    Eric Lander is one of the few scientists my high school biology students can recognize, the other is ND Tyson. Watch him teach on a fantastic video here:
    http://www.pbs.org/wgbh/nova/genome/
    I show this each and every year, and when you get to the baby Hayden story, no matter how crass, jaded and rowdy the class is, they change, even if for an hour.

  3. #3 ecologist
    December 22, 2008

    You say “In fact, a lot of profs don’t teach at all.” Not so. A professor that doesn’t teach at all is a rarity. Those that do no teaching are by far mostly “research faculty,” that is, faculty who are not paid by the university at all, but whose salary must come from research grants. Other than that, the vast majority of professors teach. (Not necessarily well, but that’s another story.)

  4. #4 Biologist
    December 22, 2008

    All professors profess! But only a few can communicate with enthusiasm and are passionate about hers/his students. One of the best professors/teachers/researchers at UCLA is Distinguish Professor J. William Schopf who teaches every spring term 100 some undergraduate students on introductory biology and the origin of life. Schopf is the founder of the interdisciplinary field of Precambrian paleonbiology/Nature- in-its-entirety.
    I am happy to see President-elect Obama’s Science Board has a TEACHER Eric Lander!

  5. #5 Jim Thomerson
    December 23, 2008

    Don’t know how it is on your planet, but here on earth, almost all of us professors teach, and it is in our teaching roll that most folks who attend a university know us. I really disagree with your remarks.

  6. #6 cyc
    December 27, 2008

    this is probably more true for medical schools and major research universities. Less true for smaller schools and liberal arts institutions. My thesis advisor spent 95% of her time on research related activities and about 5% of her time in actual class teaching (4 lectures a year). After all, it is the grant money that brings in the money, not tuition.

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