Researcher, teacher, mentor
By Drew Sottardi | Senior writer
Associate professor of biology F. Bryan Pickett is a case study in hard work and perseverance.
When he was a child, Pickett bounced in and out of poverty as his family struggled to make ends meet. He lived in several states before finally settling down in tiny Florence, Ariz., as a teenager.
“It’s at the end of nowhere,” Pickett said of the hardscrabble town, which had a population of only a few thousand when he lived there. “I like to say that I’m the professor from the wrong side of the tracks.”
But growing up in Florence did have its benefits. It instilled in Pickett a tremendous work ethic and the realization that helping others is what life is all about.
It’s a lesson that Pickett has carried with him to this day—and it’s a large part of why he received the Ignatius Loyola Award for Excellence in Teaching at the Faculty Convocation on September 20.
“I learned at a very young age how incredibly important it was to always work hard,” said Pickett, who has been at Loyola since 1996. “And if you did work hard, you had an opportunity to find somebody who was a mentor.”
‘You end up feeling smarter’
For Pickett, that mentor was Mr. Gentry, a free spirit who owned the local grocery store and who took all of his young employees under his wing.
“He was a very caring person, even though we were a bunch of high school kids,” Pickett said. “He would give us time off if we had to study for a test, and he taught us all how to become butchers because he knew it was a skill you could use to support yourself in college. He really wanted to see us all succeed.”
At Loyola, Pickett tries to duplicate that one-on-one mentoring experience with his students.
“The way to help students is not to develop a big program with hundreds of people filtering through it. You never get to know them in a setup like that,” he said. “But if you can bring 10-15 students into the lab and work with them individually, then you can make a difference.”
Miguel Barajas worked for three years in Pickett’s lab doing genetics research, and he saw firsthand the difference that a strong mentor can make.
“He’s an incredibly friendly person who can make difficult concepts easy to understand,” said Barajas, who graduated from Loyola in 2013 and is now in his second year at the Pritzker School of Medicine at the University of Chicago. “You end up feeling smarter after you’ve talked to him.”
Pickett also helped Barajas apply for a Carbon Fellowship, which gives funding to undergraduate science majors so they can conduct research with Loyola professors.
“Writing that application was one of the most rigorous things I did in college, and he guided me through the entire thing—line by line,” Barajas said. “He does a million different things for his students, and he does it willingly and gladly.”
Bringing his students together
In the classroom, Pickett has his students work together to help one another and solve problems as a team. And he takes a novel approach to make sure that happens.
“I ask all of my students at the beginning of the semester: ‘Is anyone in here a convicted killer? If so, please raise your hand so we’ll know you’re not safe to talk to,’ ” Pickett said.
“I do that to show the class that we’re all decent people, that we all mean well, and that it’s actually safe to talk to each other. I think that’s one of the most important things I try to do as a professor—just get the students to work together on their learning.”
Pickett, who teaches several undergraduate and graduate-level courses, challenges his students in other ways too. In his clinical ethics class, for instance, they debate the role of social justice in health care and whether doctors should provide treatment even if a patient doesn’t give consent.
Many of Pickett’s students go on to medical school or into careers as researchers, so he always reminds them that they’re entering into a lifetime of learning. He also reminds them what will happen if they don’t continue to learn.
“They’ll fall behind and eventually be practicing pseudo-science,” he said. “And that’s very dangerous.”
Making medical school a reality
One of Pickett’s greatest contributions at Loyola was his role in developing the Master of Arts and Medical Sciences (MAMS) program, said Arthur Lurigio, PhD, senior associate dean for faculty affairs in the College of Arts & Sciences.
The program, which Pickett helped start several years ago, prepares students for medical school. To date, more than 90 percent of its graduates have been accepted into medical school, with many of them attending the top programs in the country.
“It’s been extremely successful,” Lurigio said, “and a lot of that is because of Bryan’s hard work.”
Though he’s no longer a part of the MAMS program, Pickett still helps students get ready for medical school by putting them through mock interviews and working on their portfolios. But it’s in the classroom and laboratory that he’s most at home.
“He teaches by doing. That’s the best way to learn science,” Lurigio said. “He gets his students to start thinking about themselves as biologists by having them live and breathe and talk biology with their classmates.
“There’s a camaraderie in the laboratory among his students, and with him, that helps them realize their potential to become scientists and physicians.”
And for Pickett, that’s the ultimate payoff for a lifetime of hard work.