After a 31-year career at MU, Virginia Peterson, teaching professor of biochemistry, can see the fruits of her work to excite students about science and help them enter careers well suited to their talents and aspirations. Her students are found all over the world in positions with industry and business, government, higher education, research, medicine and medical arts.
Her philosophy, she said, is simple — listen and connect with each student, understanding that each person is an individual with a unique history, learning style and aspirations. Her goal is to adopt her teaching approach to the student, rather than have the student adapt to the teacher’s style.
Most teachers, she said, are auditory learners and teach that way. Unfortunately, most students are visual or kinesthetic learners–people who learn by doing. A classroom lecture, she said, is among the worst ways to teach scientific subjects to these students. To better succeed at reaching them, the trick is to learn what kind of learning style is strongest in each student and then teach in that method.
That often means getting innovative. A little cheerleading and some pom poms to show a chemical relationship? Why not, it gets attention and demonstrates a concept that fails on the blackboard. Instead of one more verbal description, sometimes a student needs an adventurous project to go through an individual discovery process. “Yes, it takes more time with this approach,” she said. “But you know it was worth it when the student looks up and says, ‘oh, now I get it.'”
Peterson came to MU in 1980 to teach biochemistry. Two years later she was assigned to advisory duties. Later, she became Biochemistry’s Director of Undergraduate Advising. She saw at least 8-10 students a day and “answered emails all of the time.” Questions range from navigating the academic process to career advice to help with personal problems.
Her pre-professional students have gone into a wide variety of occupations and their questions can touch on ophthalmology, pharmacy, pre-med and pre-vet, anesthesiology, law and intellectual property rights, as well as landing a job in research, government and higher education. With help, she has seen students overcome financial and illness problems who then go on to successful careers.
“Often, it’s most gratifying to talk to students who think they need to be doctors,” Peterson said. “After we have given them opportunities to explore other career options and test their skills, they find the things that they really want to do and are good at. This is real success — when someone has a substantial lifetime involvement in what they really are excited about in life.”
Peterson attributes her success as a teacher to two things: knowing the material and understanding the best way to present it. In addition to the typical blackboard-based lecture, she has used pom-poms and a bit of acting showmanship to reach visual learners. In a writing-intensive Capstone class, she coached students on how to think, organize and communicate, as well as the material being studied.
This kind of effort earned Peterson several teaching awards including one for helping students with various challenges to succeed in a science-intensive program. In 2006 she was named the Missouri Academic Advising Association’s Outstanding Faculty Advisor. To honor her, the Biochemistry Department will endow a scholarship in her name.
She will still contribute to student success even after she leaves MU. Royalties for her best-selling textbook, Fundamentals of General, Organic and Biological Chemistry, will fund a scholarship.