May 23, 1996
Vol. 15, No. 18

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    Amoco Award: Malka Moscona

    Associate Professor in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division Malka Moscona prefers to teach by a personal variation of the Socratic method, which is not so unusual -- except the courses she teaches are in developmental biology. She taught an upper-level course until two years ago and continues to teach another in the Common Core. She also teaches an interdisciplinary upper-level course with Martha McClintock, Professor in Psychology, on the development of gender and gender differences.

    "The students are doing much of the work -- I don't really lecture," said Moscona, Associate Professor in the Biological Sciences Collegiate Division and a two-time teaching award recipient. She won the Quantrell Award in 1983.

    "Mostly, I make the students think and come up with solutions. I describe a process or a concept and ask them how they would go about testing it. Only after they try do I tell them about the experiments actually performed."

    Moscona said the students respond to this approach, but not immediately. "Usually it takes me two to three weeks to get a smile out of them," she said. "But then they're quite pleased with the wonderful ideas they come up with. Of course, sometimes lecturing is inevitable."

    The students who are less experienced in biology are particularly engaged by her discussion format. "It's harder to make pre-meds talk. The non-biology majors may come in hating biology, but they'll usually speak out more and become fascinated," she said.

    What often needs to be overcome, Moscona said, is students' fear of science. "They see it as a lot of facts to memorize and get turned off. As soon as they realize it's not just a bunch of facts, but a living, breathing, exciting and changing science, they begin to get really interested and even start reading the New York Times science pages and so on. And that's what we need -- enlightened citizens who understand the issues related to biology and continue to learn."

    Moscona received her M.S. in 1953 and her Ph.D. in 1957 from Hebrew University. She came to Chicago as a Research Associate in 1961. She has taught developmental biology in the College since 1976.

    Moscona thinks her research experience is key to her success as a teacher. "I think it's very important for a biology professor to be actively involved in research -- you have a different attitude. You can relate the excitement of your field," she said. "It also gives you a familiarity with other scientists, and students really want to know about the scientists who did the research they're learning about."

    Beyond human interest, that knowledge is important to understanding the science, Moscona said. "I urge the students to understand the scientists and to read about them, books like The Double Helix -- it humanizes them."

    -- Bill Burton