by Cathryn Delude

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May 30th, 2014

Harvard’s Phi Beta Kappa chapter has awarded one of three prestigious Excellence in Teaching Prizes to Tom Torello, Assistant Director of Undergraduate Studies and Lecturer on MCB. Only the undergraduate members of the group can nominate teachers for this prize.

“I am particularly honored because the nomination and selection process for this award is run by students. This is a really special for me,” said Torello, who in addition to teaching teaches is the advisor for two undergraduate concentrations in the Life Sciences: Molecular and Cellular Biology (MCB) and Chemical and Physical Biology (CPB).

In nominating Torello, undergraduate Aaron Cheng ('15), recalled a “breakthrough moment” in the introductory Molecular Biology course MCB52, “when Dr. Thomas Torello explained to us the intuition behind biological research” in a simple but direct lesson of the principles in designing research experiments.  “I learned that day to never take biological pathways at face value and instead see them as an inference made to fit the data. These concepts have stayed with me as I continued to take upper-division biology classes, and I have found them to be useful in deciding which research experiments to perform in order to answer biological questions.”

What is Torello’s secret?  “My approach involves helping students identify gaps in their understanding (or misunderstandings) using various in-class activities,” he said. “I emphasize the most important concepts using demonstrations and analogies that highlight the unifying themes.” He also incorporates experimental approaches and data interpretation in class discussions. That, in turn, often leads students to ask questions with unknown answers. “That’s the fun part because it illustrates that science isn’t about memorizing textbooks full of facts.  It’s about developing a way of thinking. How do we know what think we know? How do we identify unanswered questions, formulate a hypothesis, design an experiment to test that hypothesis, and interpret the results from that experiment?”

He added: “I have also had such outstanding mentorship and support from Rich Losick and Briana Burton, with whom I’ve co-taught for several years.”

MCB Professor Burton said, “It has been an honor to teach alongside Tom in MCB 52, as he brings enthusiasm, passion and skill to his teaching. Among the many reasons that Tom is such an effective and respected lecturer are his mastery of the material and his phenomenal rapport with the students, making a large lecture feel like a small group discussion. He uses props and analogies to help the students internalize challenging concepts, and he always has a great, relevant anecdote to help keep students engaged. Tom is a dedicated educator, and I am delighted that he is being recognized with this award!”

“I was delighted to hear about Tom’s teaching award – he deserves it!” said Professor Rachelle Gaudet, head tutor for MCB undergraduates. “He puts so much thought into every aspect of his teaching, really engaging students so that they learn not just facts but also how to think and process information as scientists. Tom is also a wonderful academic advisor to our undergraduate students.”

The faculty coordinator for the Phi Beta Kappa chapter, Richard Tarrant, the Pope Professor of Latin, said of Torello: “He enlivens his teaching with interactive learning processes, and is constantly refining his courses with the help of student feedback. As an advisor to two concentrations, he has helped many students find their way both inside and outside the classroom.”