Faculty Spotlight: Dr. Deborah Mowshowitz

Portrait photo of Dr. Deborah Mowshowitz

Dr. Deborah Mowshowitz got her PhD, got married, and got a driver's license in the spring of 1969. She came to Columbia later that same year and has been involved in teaching Intro Bio at Columbia ever since. On the occasion of her recent transition from Director of Undergraduate Studies in Biological Sciences to teaching in the Frontiers of Science program in Columbia College, Faculty Spotlight talked with her about her teaching, her students, and what has changed at Columbia since she arrived in the summer of ‘69.

Faculty Spotlight: What was your undergraduate experience like? 

I was an undergraduate at Brandeis University. I was intending to be a chemistry major because I had loved my high school chemistry class, but despised my biology class, which was very rigid. My conclusion was that I would never take biology again as long as I lived. But later, when I was a chemistry major in college, I was required to take biology and to my great surprise, it wasn't at all like the one in high school. Still, chemistry was just more and more, about less and less, as far as I was concerned, and biology seemed a little soft. So, I graduated as a math major. And I went to graduate school in biochemistry because I was both interested in biochemistry and it had the shortest application. I had an NSF Fellowship, so I had to go to graduate school!

FS: Can you tell us about your scientific training?

I worked with Dr. James Darnell, who did molecular biology in the biochemistry department at Albert Einstein College of Medicine, which had a graduate school as well as a medical school. When it was time to work in a lab and write a PhD thesis, I went around and interviewed various faculty members. One of them said, “I don't want to take you because I'm going to spend a lot of time training you. And then you're just going to get married and have children and leave.” He said it straight out. I didn't work for him. 

When I came to Darnell, he said, “I don't care what you do when you get out of here. As long as you do good work while you're here.” And I thought, aha! He turned out to be a match. He was a wonderful man, very helpful, but not a micromanager. After I got my PhD, I worked with him for about a year as a postdoctoral fellow. Then he came to Columbia to help rejuvenate our department. I came with him and that's how I ended up at Columbia. 

FS: Before we get to your work at Columbia, could you tell us a little bit about your graduate student thesis or your postdoc work?

I was working on the processing of transfer RNA. At that time, people had only just discovered that RNAs, in general, were often made larger and then trimmed before they were used. No one knew at the time that some of the trimming came out of the middle. They thought it only came off the ends. In any case, they were discovering that the precursors of RNAs were bigger than the final job. And that's what I worked on. As a postdoc, I worked on an RNA virus and how it replicated. People were interested in viruses, then, not as viruses, but because the virus allows you to study this expression of genetic information without having to worry about metabolism. So the question was, how did the viruses take over the cell? How did they make their RNA? How did they take over translation, et cetera. 

I have to say that when I started, no one could sequence RNA or DNA. It was impossible. Nobody knew how to do it. If you wanted to know the structure of a gene, you inferred it from the structure of the product, the protein that it made. You inferred both the structure of the RNA and the structure of the DNA from the protein. It sounds unbelievable, but if you could purify, characterize, and sequence one protein in my day, you had enough for a PhD thesis. So that's different. In the very first edition of The Problem Book--the book of exam problems I’ve collected over the years now known as The Learners Manual--there was a problem that said: Why is it easier to sequence a protein than a nucleic acid of the same size? I took that one out. 

FSHow would you say your own experience as a student has informed the way you teach at Columbia?

Dr. Herman Epstein greatly influenced my teaching. He was one of the instructors in Introductory Biology at Brandeis. As it happened, I worked in his lab as a tech. His class was a large lecture with smaller discussion sections. I was in his discussion section and it was just amazing - whatever he wanted us to discuss, somehow we always discussed it. He was able to somehow direct everything exactly the way he wanted, without it being apparent. But I was much too young to see how he did it, or to even notice what he was doing. 

After I came to Columbia, I met people who had either read the book that Dr. Epstein wrote about teaching, or who had been in one of his graduate classes. From them, I learned some of the things that he used to do, which I thought were marvelous. For example, apparently he used to make you write a question on a three-by-five card before you came to class, and that was the ticket of admission. You didn't have a card, you couldn't get in. He was an expert at what we now call 'active learning.' Epstein's book was about teaching without formal lecturing (at which I think he admitted he was terrible) and he thought that the way you should teach is that you should only discuss papers in your field. He felt that the only way you really learn science is by being in a lab, and that reading a research paper is the closest you can get to being in a lab without being in an actual lab.  

FS: Was this at the time, a different way of thinking about teaching? 

It was very different, and I’m not sure it ever really caught on. The idea was that the students would read the papers and then you would give as many mini-lectures as necessary about how to do this, how to do that, what this means, what that means, and so on. 

Around when I first started teaching at Columbia, I actually ran a graduate course with another faculty member, Dr. Barbara Filner, who had been a student of Dr. Epstein’s in graduate school. We taught a paper reading course for advanced undergraduates and graduates. We would tell students to go home and read the paper, then they would come back and we would say, did you read the paper? And they would say yes. And then we would say, well, what does Figure One mean? And they would just look at us. Yeah. That's when I realized that you have to do something. I was very, very lucky that Dr. Filner stood up one day and explained how you decode a paper. Eureka. I myself had learned to do it by the seat of the pants, like almost everybody else. And I had no idea how I did it. 

I wrote Dr. Filner’s lecture down, and we actually published a paper about it. Since then I have read, from three or four different sources, how to read a paper and they're all the same, because everybody sort of comes to the same conclusion. On my website there’s something called the “How To” Collection. And there are two documents posted there on how to read papers. 

FS: What was the Biological Sciences Department like when you started teaching here, and how has it changed over the years?

When Darnell and company came to Columbia in 1969, I don't remember whether there was a Botany and Zoology department or a Biology department, but it was right around the time the shift happened. I taught with one of the people from the old setup who was a wonderfully nice person but, in my opinion, a terrible teacher. He wrote exams that were like this: The _____ in the ______ is under the ______ next to the ______. Now, if you had memorized his notes, that was a piece of cake. If you had not memorized his notes, you might as well tear the paper up and throw it in the trash. 

But the great advantage was that he was male. I was female. At the time, I was very small and young and thin and everyone just assumed that I was some kind of teaching assistant, which turned out very well, because anything that went wrong was considered his fault. Nobody blamed me for anything. So it had some great advantages. And then, when I finished, I said to myself, now I know how to do it. 

The first time I ever taught a full college class at Columbia, it was a bust. I made all the mistakes that beginning teachers make. I had previously taught only botany lab, which I didn't know much about, but you just had to keep a chapter ahead of the students. I still remember to this day, standing behind the lectern in my first course at Columbia, and having a student come up and argue with me about some grade or something, and it suddenly dawned on me that I was the teacher and I could say, “no.” It had not occurred to me until that moment who was in charge, because I had been a student for years and years. I’d always been on the other side. 

FS: How is an undergrad's experience in the Biological Sciences department today different from when you were first teaching? 

That's a good question. The topics have changed considerably - what is now hot and what people do is totally different from what they did and when I was training. But students still have to get a pretty fundamental understanding of things that have been known for a long time. Let me step back one minute and say: almost everybody who comes to Columbia believes that biology is rote. That it involves the memorization of large amounts of stuff, but they have not been trained to apply that information. Even in my day, when you could look things up in a book, I thought it was dumb to make students memorize stuff. And today when you can use Google, I don't get it at all.

Well, I have always taught biology, I think, more or less the same way. The fall after that first course, I gave an exam, and it was the kind of exam I now give: problems you had to solve. The students had to use the information they knew. And the students said, how the hell was I supposed to know that this is what I was supposed to do?? And I said to the students, you're right. So I made up a bunch of study problems. What would happen if you made this change in the pathway, somebody walks in with purple spots, what do you do? Over the years I have accumulated quite a collection of old exam problems. And eventually I made the book now called The Learner's Manual that has tons and tons of problems. And I haven't added that much to the one in the first semester, in a long time, because it has problems that cover most of the major features of the course. 

Lectures really set you up to do the problems. You actually learn from doing the problems and, I would say, experiencing failure. Realizing what you did wrong, and changing, and doing better. Now there's more emphasis on trying to pull the students along and make them understand that they already know how to memorize things or they wouldn't be at Columbia. We don't have to teach them that, right? It’s our job to get them to the next level one way or another. 

FS: Do you have a favorite story from teaching at Columbia?

Well, yeah, I had a student once who had a broken middle finger and had a cast on it. So, he was sitting in class, leaning his arm on the arm of the chair. He must've been doped up on something and he kept falling asleep, and then he would awake with a jerk and push his hand up. And there was the middle finger with a cast on it, sticking straight up. And it happened repeatedly. I’ve never quite forgotten that class. 

Also, I’ve always liked the comment of the student who said he would recommend the course (meaning Intro Bio) except you couldn't be sure of getting an A. 

FS: What is the most interesting open question in your field?

Well, I just heard somebody say that content tends to drive out teaching methods. And I think that's true in science courses--there's a strong feeling that the student has to master certain content in order to go on to the next level. And if you don't get that content across, you've not done your job. But I don't believe that if you cover it in class, it “goes into the brain” and if you don't cover it, they will never learn it. I believe teaching students how to learn is more important. It is true that if you do some of the things that people recommend in terms of active learning and student participation and discussion and so forth, it does take up time. So you have to figure out how to get the content in some other way. 

It’s very hard for a research professor to put in the proper amount of time and effort to do teaching properly. It's counterproductive for them to do it right. I think when I was a student, but maybe for some time after that, especially post Sputnik, there was a lot of money for science and academics. It was pretty easy to get a grant. So it was reasonable to expect a research professor to run a lab and teach at the same time, because keeping the lab going didn't require nearly as much effort as it does now. Now, the incentives are wrong.

Today, the university hires lecturers whose promotion depends on their teaching. The idea is that, in your beginning classes, the teaching is more important--getting the students excited and getting them to like science, getting them interested is really important. But then in their more advanced level, working in a lab with someone who's doing current research is more important. And the nice thing is that the current system at Columbia allows both of those things to happen. 

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