For Patrick Foo, associate professor of psychology and UNC Asheville’s 2017 Distinguished Teacher of the Year, teaching is about “improving people’s lives.”
And from the letters nominating him for the Distinguished Teaching award, he has certainly improved the lives of his students and colleagues.
Lorena Russell, associate professor of English and the 2016 Distinguished Teacher of the Year, presented the award to Foo at the May 2017 Commencement. Describing Foo as “attentive, patient and student-centered in every way,” she highlighted his dedication to mentoring students conducting undergraduate research and his continued impact on students’ post-graduate work.
Foo’s deep appreciation for the field of neuroscience and the drive to help students learn comes from an extremely personal place: his own body.
In the sixth grade, Foo woke up one morning completely paralyzed. After suffering from a severe case of the flu, he contracted Guillian-Barre syndrome, a rare disorder in which the immune system attacks the nervous system. He spent two years in a wheelchair. With the help of his mother he was able to continue going to school but could no longer participate in many activities he loved and excelled at, like playing football and running track.
While he made a full recovery, this intense experience ignited a desire in Foo to better understand the human body.
“ … I became obsessed with trying to figure out what caused nervous system diseases. It’s this passion for learning that I want to pass on to our students. … We have studied concussions in soccer players, balance coordination in seniors, meditation techniques, robotic navigation and virtual reality here at UNCA. These are not just studies for academic sake, but projects that can potentially improve people's lives,” he explains.
To engage students in the challenging subject matter of neuroscience, Foo gets creative with his classes, focusing on hands-on learning. The Department of Psychology Chair and Associate Professor Pam Laughon spoke to his “absolutely stunning classroom lectures and laboratory exercises, which range from neural analysis of cockroaches to dissection of sheep brains. He enjoys nothing more than taking our students on a journey through the nervous system across species, and students respond with high praise for his teaching and more importantly, a real sense of accomplishment as learners.”
An alumna who nominated Foo agrees: “He is willing to do whatever it takes for each of his students, in order for them to get the absolute most out of their undergraduate careers. This is exemplified in the way he teaches each of his classes. Dr. Foo will rarely come to class with less than four props to highlight important ideas; whether it be a skeleton, a cross-section of a brain, or a reflex game.”
As the co-founder and former director of UNC Asheville’s neuroscience program, Foo has been instrumental in expanding the curriculum into a minor that attracts increasing numbers of students each year from a range of disciplines, including biology, chemistry, psychology, and health and wellness. His students have been able to share their research with audiences of all ages, from elementary school classrooms to UNC Asheville’s Osher Lifelong Learning Institute (OLLI) for seniors.
“I try to remind my students of the joy of discovering new ideas and gaining knowledge. My ultimate goal is to empower students so they can fly solo after they graduate from UNCA,” Foo says.
The alumna, who is now in medical school, also attests to Foo’s unwavering commitment to his students’ success. “But, the truly special thing about Dr. Foo as a professor is not the fact that he is simply a brilliant teacher, not that he creates an engaging and challenging environment to learn, not that he has a wealth of knowledge to share, or that he is a heck of a research advisor, it is simply that he is wholeheartedly invested in the success of his students.
"I cannot count the number of times I have emailed or called Dr. Foo with a question or a problem, or just to get his opinion. He is always there, always has a level-headed response, and gives me a different perspective on the situation. His investment in my success as a professional is just as strong now as it was when I was his student and his research advisee. This type of character and moral compass is what sets him apart.”