Richard Burgess on Teaching and Science
  Richard Burgess     Biography    
Recorded: 23 Apr 2001

I don’t think it’s so different. I think that differs more between people at a given time than it does on the average from then to now. There are people now who are very laissez faire or not even involved and there people that are involved with every meticulous detail. That was true for both times. In classroom teaching, there’s—my wife has taught me there is more than just getting up and lecturing. If you could get the students involved actively by having them discuss among themselves—teach each other—that is cooperative learning or active learning. That’s actually a very much more effective way in the long run for people to remember things; to really learn it and to be able to use it in the future—not just memorize it and forget it. I know in my own teaching I have been more influenced more by my wife than anyone else, you don’t just get up there and lecture people. You somehow get them involved. Ask questions of them—do something so they can’t just sit back and have the words hit them. So I don’t think there’s a big difference. Maybe more people are recognizing that concept more now than they were forty years ago, not too much.

(17.01) I like to teach. I was in a department of oncology at Wisconsin that didn’t have a large teaching load, we were professors in a medical school but we didn’t have teaching responsibilities to the medical students. There are few undergraduate majors in medical biology—in medicine. I was basically allowed to develop my research program without having to spend a lot of time teaching. And later on, decided I’d like to teach a course on protein purification. There was no course like that at Wisconsin. I found out that I really loved to teach and I was a little bit irritated that I hadn’t been required to teach sooner because I had missed ten years of fun. It’s a lot of work but I really love to purify proteins, I like to work with proteins. And I like to learn how to do it better and then I like to teach people how to do it. So I teach a course at Madison about that and when I got invited to come and be an instructor in this, I was so pleased for a lot of reasons: one is it was—this is the ideal kind of a teaching environment. You’ve got sixteen students who are paying $2000 to take a course. They have to be motivated; they are busy people. One-third of them are professors who are taking two weeks out of their lives to come here. So it’s not like you have unwilling students, these are students who are just like sponges, they’re smart. They are experienced scientists; they just happen to know nothing about proteins, so our goal is to teach them about proteins. The other reason I am excited about doing this and why I am planning to break the record for the most years [teaching] a course at Cold Spring Harbor. (I heard Gerry Fink is ahead of me.) I think this place has an unbelievable tradition of being a place [where] people are [doing] cutting edge science and to me to be a part of that is a real exciting thing. Sometimes when we are half way through the course, like we are now, I wonder whether it’s all worth it. But it is, you just get worn out. It is a fifteen-hour lab day course, after all. We go from 8 in the morning until 11 at night everyday for six days. And then we take a day off to charge our batteries up and then do it again for another six days. I mean, I don’t know many of my colleagues who have 180 contact hours in a ten-year period let alone in a twelve-day period. So yeah, it’s fun, it’s fun.

Richard Burgess is a geneticist who has been an important figure in cancer, microbial, and molecular research. He earned his Ph.D. from Harvard University under Jim Watson in 1969 and went on to work with Alfred Tissieres at the University of Geneva, Switzerland.

He is currently researching RNA polymerases, monoclonal antibodies (MAbs), molecular genetics, computer-based sequence and structure analysis, and biochemistry at the McArdle Laboratory for Cancer Reaearch at the University of Wisconsin.