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Inspiration at the Heart of Education

Inspiration at the Heart of Education
Award-winning teacher and chemist Brent Iverson makes the case for research as being at the heart of undergraduate education.[Originally published in the Austin-American Statesman on November 5, 2011]
When a world-class researcher inspires young science students, the practical benefits multiply downstream to drive our economy and at the same time create the next generation of inspirational science and engineering teachers.

Some people would like to put research and teaching in direct conflict in higher education, but I simply do not understand the premise of this alleged conflict.

Graduate and undergraduate students carry out the lion's share of research on our campuses. Academic research laboratories are where students destined for American industry learn the practical aspects of science and engineering, and just as importantly, they are where the next generation of university teachers and scholars are trained. So exactly how do we draw a bright line between teaching and research? I, for one, do not know.

As the landscape of higher education changes, at the University of Texas at Austin, across Texas and throughout the United States, I know that we will make a future that is better for our students. Personally, I am excited by change and the opportunities it brings us, and optimistic about what will happen.

But as we move forward, we must never forget that higher education is about more than just teaching information. It is about human inspiration, and I personally believe that inspiration comes from the research process and the best and brightest researchers.

I grew up in Palo Alto and San Jose, Calif., at the right time to have a front-row seat for the high tech revolution. I watched as the orchards of the fertile Santa Clara valley were transformed into what we now know as Silicon Valley. I had high school friends who hung around the garage that gave birth to Apple computer.. I wanted to be a high-tech entrepreneur, so I headed off to Stanford in search of an undergraduate science degree, then an MBA. My life was about to take an abrupt turn.

A funny thing happened my freshman year. I ended up in the organic chemistry class of a small professor with a big voice named Jim Collman. The material did not immediately attract my attention, but there was something about this guy. I could not help but notice the twinkle in his eye when he talked about chemistry. It was obvious that he loved science and he loved to teach us about it. It was contagious. He also happened to be in the National Academy of Sciences and a world leader in his field of research. He could answer every question we threw at him, and he knew all the chemists whose work was described in our textbook. I joined his research lab and my life's passion was ignited. Inspiration had taken over my education in the form of a dynamic personality, an excitement that was very human.

Collman recently retired, yet his legacy will live on because he inspired numerous former students like me to become faculty members around the country, and he even helped train two Nobel laureates. In my case, his impact as a research and teaching inspiration can be measured in the more than 11,000 undergraduates I have taught at UT, my many publications in the scientific literature and 18 patents. My textbook is used around the country at a significant number of major universities. In collaboration with UT engineering professor George Georgiou, my lab developed a cure for anthrax that has been commercialized by Elusys Inc. of Pine Brook, N.J., and has received over $200 million during development and testing. It is now close to final approval and stockpiling as a frontline bioterrorism countermeasure.

When my career is over, I hope that I will have been able to inspire students to find their passions and realize their biggest dreams. As we embrace change and build the future of higher education together, we must never forget that inspiration, a uniquely human interaction that occurs when a college student meets a true scholar, needs to remain an essential and celebrated element of higher education in Texas. Information, especially in the technical fields, becomes obsolete, but inspiration lasts a lifetime.
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Monday, 19 April 2021

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