‘Learn by doing’ is this prof’s watchword

STANDING OUT<br>As his plaque indicates, Chico State University biology teacher Gordon Wolfe has been designated outstanding professor for the 2007-08 academic year.

As his plaque indicates, Chico State University biology teacher Gordon Wolfe has been designated outstanding professor for the 2007-08 academic year.

Photo By Bryce Benson

A poorly taught high school biology class turned Gordon Wolfe off the subject for decades. But the experience is now an inspiration for him to teach.

On May 1, Chico State University President Paul Zingg presented the biology teacher with the Outstanding Professor Award for 2007-08.

“The mark of an outstanding professor is that professor’s ability to stay current,” Zingg said in his congratulatory introduction to about 30 of Wolfe’s colleagues and students in the Performing Arts Center’s Rowland-Taylor Recital Hall.

This ability, coupled with Wolfe’s innovative teaching techniques, has won him praise from both colleagues and students.

“A true scholar is able to change one’s research area as science progresses,” wrote Larry Hanne and Jeffrey Bell, professors in the Department of Biological Sciences, in their nomination letter to the Faculty Recognition and Support Committee. “Early in his career at CSU Chico, Dr. Wolfe recognized the importance of molecular ecological studies and was able to move into a new research area in which he is now a recognized leader.”

Growing up in Cambridge, Mass., Wolfe was the son of Harvard librarians. As a boy, he worked in the Warren Anatomical Museum, and in 1982 he graduated from the university with a degree in physics. He didn’t return to biology until he moved west a decade later and met his wife, Marti, at a tech company in Silicon Valley.

“She showed me the natural history of California, and I took some botany courses at San Jose State University,” Wolfe said. “We decided to return to graduate school to study environmental science, where I was introduced to microbiology.”

Since then his career has blossomed. He has published numerous articles, edited a book, presented at 30 national and international conferences and received nearly $3 million in grants from the National Science Foundation.

But you don’t win an Outstanding Professor Award just because you’re a successful scientist. Wolfe had already received the CSU, Chico Professional Achievement Award in 2006 and the CSU, Chico College of Natural Sciences Professional Achievement Award in 2007. He won this year for his exemplary instruction.

“Dr. Wolfe’s instructional performance is every bit as impressive as his research efforts,” Hanne and Bell wrote.

Wolfe has a philosophy for teaching.

“The best way to learn is by doing, and a lot of what students learn comes from outside the classroom,” Wolfe said. “Don’t let school get in the way of your education.”

Wolfe is part of a collaborative $1.2 million grant from the National Science Foundation to study organisms living in Lassen’s Boiling Springs Lake, a 52-degree Celsius, PH 2 volcanic lake that is the largest hot spring in North America. Students like Marni Merrill appreciate the opportunity to help Wolfe with his research.

“It has helped me understand the interconnectedness of ecosystems,” said the graduating senior. “It also helps that he explains everything from a why-things-work perspective instead of telling you this is what you do.”

Not only does he show his students the importance of microbial ecology, he involves them in his research. He’s published articles in peer-reviewed journals with at least 15 of his students. He also published an article about the protist genetic diversity in the acidic hydrothermal systems of Lassen Volcanic National Park with former graduate student Patricia Bitterman Brown, who is now a microbiologist with the Department of Defense.

“In the two years I have worked in this position, I’ve received two substantial raises, a promotion and much praise for my work,” she wrote in her nomination letter. “I came to this position because I had the necessary skills learned in Dr. Wolfe’s lab.”