UNC Asheville Professor of Biology Jennifer Rhode Ward has been named the winner of the 2020 Association of Southern Biologists’ Meritorious Teaching Award, one of the highest honors for excellence in teaching at the undergraduate and/or graduate level in biology in the U.S. Southeast.
A member of UNC Asheville’s faculty since 2007, Ward is known for creating authentic research experiences for her undergraduate students, where they learn and conduct molecular genetic analyses needed by decision-makers in forestry and wildlife sciences. She has partnered in recent years with WNC Nature Center, the U.S. Forestry Service, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service, and the Potawatami Zoo, among others.
“My goal is twofold – to help the community with its research needs, and to help the students gain lab and data analysis skills while working on a real project, creating deliverables for the community organizations,” says Ward. “So not only are they creating data that otherwise wouldn’t get generated, but they are gaining experience explaining that data to a scientifically educated person, but who isn’t necessarily trained in modern molecular genetic analysis. There’s an art to explaining technical stuff to a non-technical audience and that’s something I think will serve them in their careers, and as citizens – the ability to translate science for a broader audience.”
To provide this experience to a larger group of students at once, Ward has converted her 400-level genetics lab course a semester-long CURE (Course-based Undergraduate Research Experience), where she and the community partners determine the research goals, and students are taught the techniques they need. Ward says students have an especially sharp focus when they are creating new knowledge rather than going through a lab exercise demonstrating already established facts.
“Our students are always interested in getting it right, but on these projects, they’re the only source,” says Ward. “For example, with the National Forest Service, we worked on trying to figure out where poached ginseng plants had originated or been taken from. You can’t tell by how they look – only through molecular genetics. So the students knew that only through their data would that origin be learned.”
It took a semester to get the techniques down right, and in the future, Ward’s lab should be able to fairly quickly analyze where ginseng comes from, so that knowledge can be used to cut down on poaching in the Great Smoky Mountains National Park. Other research had more immediate applicability, such as determining whether river otters in captivity were genetically distant enough to be bred.
Ward’s nomination brought a large number of enthusiastic recommendations by students, alumni, and faculty colleagues, one of whom described her as “tireless” in trying to create authentic research opportunities for students, and as a risk-taker constantly trying to improve on her own work. “What I find most impressive is the way she tailors her scientific pursuits to allow undergraduates to be involved in every aspect of her research,” said another faculty member.
Ward also has been successful in bringing many grant-funded projects to UNC Asheville, many designed to incorporate research opportunities more broadly in the curriculum, and many partnered with other faculty and some with area high school teachers. And in January she began a fellowship with the Partnership for Undergraduate Life Science Education (PULSE). PULSE Fellows are selected to serve as ignitors of institutional change in science education at undergraduate institutions across the country.
Ward stresses how appreciative she is of her faculty colleagues for their support and expertise, and also is grateful for support of the University’s grants office. Mostly, in response to this award, she expressed gratitude and pride at spending her career teaching biology in a liberal arts university. “I’m living the dream,” she says with a smile. “I went to St. Mary’s College in Maryland, a small liberal arts college. I experienced CUREs before there was a name for it, and I’m working to replicate my undergraduate experience for my students.”
The 2020 Association of Southern Biologists’ Meritorious Teaching Award was presented virtually via the ASB Facebook, where a video of that presentation is available.
For more information on Ward’s research and publications, visit her website, https://sites.google.com/a/unca.edu/jrward/home/research.