Forsyth awarded Jefferson Teaching honor| February 8, 2010
Microbiologist Mark Forsyth believes that the best classroom is a laboratory.
“I think doing research just naturally integrates teaching. You cannot do research with students without an educational component, especially at the undergraduate level,” he said. “In the laboratory, when I’m teaching about a sequencing reaction or a cloning reaction, a student is simply not hearing me tell how the reaction works, they’re about to do it themselves for the first time. You can’t study from last year’s exam when it comes to lab work, because there wasn’t one.”
Forsyth currently holds the Dorman Family Term Distinguished Professorship in the biology department. A member of the William & Mary faculty since 2000, he is the recipient of the 2010 Thomas Jefferson Teaching Award, the highest honor the College awards to young faculty members.
Asked to characterize his teaching style, Forsyth chuckles and looks nonplussed.
“I don’t know that I really have one,” he said. “I mean, I never was trained to be a teacher, as most professors aren’t; we just kind of adopt whatever seems to make sense. I just try to be as clear as I possibly can when I explain things and try to be as accessible as I can, because I’m not always as clear as I’d like to be in class.”
Forsyth works with both the newest and the most experienced students at William & Mary. Every spring semester, he teaches General Microbiology, a course that usually enrolls 80 or so students, almost all juniors and seniors. The microbiology class has two lab sections associated with it, as well. In the fall, Forsyth alternates between two seminar courses for seniors and graduate students. Mechanisms of Bacterial Symbiosis is offered in odd-numbered years, while Microbial Pathogenesis is offered in even-numbered years.
Along with Margaret Saha and Kurt Williamson, Forsyth is “team-teaching” the second year of a freshman seminar on the genetics of bacteriophages under the sponsorship of the Science Education Alliance of the Howard Hughes Medical Institute (HHMI). Last year, participants in the inaugural phage initiative discovered a previously unknown strain of these viruses. They dubbed it CrimD, because it was isolated from a sample of the muck from William & Mary's Crim Dell.
“The primary purpose of the phage lab is to introduce new students to the thrill of true scientific inquiry beyond the traditional ‘cookie-cutter’ laboratories of introductory biology, and it is in this environment that Mark excels,” Samuel Harvey ’12, a veteran of the first phage lab, wrote in a letter supporting Forsyth’s nomination for the Jefferson Teaching Award. “His is the best kind of instruction, where fundamental concepts are reinforced by practical and pertinent example.”
Forsyth said that Harvey and other participants in the freshman phage seminar learn lab techniques that in many ways are more advanced than those he teaches to upperclass students in his General Microbiology lab sections.
“The skills that they’re getting in the phage lab are actually more related to what they would do in a research laboratory,” he explained. “The techniques that the students in the microbiology seminars are learning are more related to clinical work, the types of things you would do in a hospital.”
Forsyth’s own research centers around a single bacterium, Helicobacter pylori, which is at the root of gastric ulcers and stomach cancer and also is present in around half of the world’s human gastrointestinal tracts. Like many William & Mary teacher-scholars, he practices enlightened self-interest by bringing his students into the lab to participate in his investigations of what makes this particular species of bacterium become such a serious pathogen. He has always invited high-performing upperclass students into his lab, but now he feels confident about the competence of certain second-year students.
“We now have students who took the phage lab last year who are now sophomores. A lot of them went into other people’s research labs—many of them into mine,” he said. “I like to think I cherry-picked the best from that group, but Margaret would argue that she cherry-picked the best.”