Q&A with Teaching Award Winner Thomas Werner

Thomas Werner and students in lab.
Thomas Werner and students in lab.
Thomas Werner and students in fruit fly lab.

Thomas Werner, associate professor of biological sciences, is the recipient of Michigan Technological University’s 2019 Distinguished Teaching Award in the Associate Professor/Professor Category. 

Werner developed a passion for studying moths and butterflies in the former East Germany before the fall of the Berlin Wall allowed him to pursue his PhD at Umea University in Sweden. After a post-doc experience at the University of Wisconsin-Madison, he joined Michigan Tech as tenure-track assistant professor in fall 2010 and began by teaching general immunology and genetics courses

It didn’t take long for Werner’s excellent teaching to be recognized; he was first nominated for the Distinguished Teaching Award and inducted into the Academy of Teaching Excellence in 2012. In 2013, his second nomination resulted in his selection for the Distinguished Teaching Award in the Assistant Professor/Lecturer category. After being promoted to associate professor and receiving tenure in 2018, he became eligible again in the Associate Professor/Professor category. And he won.

"Werner is the epitome of the scholar-teacher. His enthusiasm in the classroom is remarkable, as is his devotion to mentoring more than 100 undergraduate researchers. Michigan Tech is fortunate to have such a gem on our faculty!"David Hemmer, dean, College of Sciences and Arts

Q: What does this award mean to you? 

A: You know, it is really hard to be in the top ten of the University. It is even harder to be nominated for the teaching award and then to win it — the chances are so slim. So, it really excites me. I received the award before. The most exciting thing for me is to be one of the super-few people who got it twice. It is very heartwarming to get this recognition from the students; I think that it's like, yeah, those students actually seem to like me! When you teach and look out into the class, I often see the students have a good laugh each session for the first couple of weeks. And then, during the following weeks of the semester, it is harder to see the students enjoying the class because they wear out a bit and get very busy. You sometimes feel like you lost them. Or maybe I lost some steam, too. And then you find a letter in your mailbox that you are nominated for the teaching award.

Thinking about the long winters here, I would call teaching a powerful antidepressant, and then winning the award feels really great. I get an adrenaline kick when I go to class and interact with the students. That's definitively the highlight of my day. 

Q: How would you describe your teaching style? 

A: Relaxed. German. Well, maybe relaxed and German don't go together. It's very organized. So, here's the thing: I'm always thinking about the students and what they need besides what they want to learn.

I make good PowerPoint slides and post them before the semester begins. The slides are beautiful with not too much text; put the text in the right size, have nice pictures. Good storytelling is key, and I try not to ramble or squish things in. Sixteen to 20 slides per class session are just about right. I tell about my own research when it fits and make it fun and lighthearted. I also almost never go 50 minutes. Forty-five minutes are ideal because in Germany, the class length is 45 minutes, for a reason. After 45 minutes, the brain just shuts down and students start packing up. Only one out of about 1,500 students complained about that: "I wish he would go the full 50 minutes." And I responded that, in my class, you don't pay for quantity but for quality. One more thing about my teaching style: I make it a goal, although it's sometimes hard, that the students should have a good laugh at least once per class session. Although it gets more difficult to accomplish the later it gets into the semester, quite often I see student comments in my evaluations like, "You're hilarious.”

"Werner is such a radiant instructor. As soon as he starts teaching, he brings a sort of energy that draws you in and makes you want to be engaged in the material. Every slide presented is as it were to be something that has recently been discovered, which makes the class very enjoyable."Student

Q: Do you have a favorite class to teach or a favorite lesson to teach?

A: I teach general immunology, introduction to genomics, genetics and a genetic techniques lab. Every class has a certain feeling to me, you know, memories of teaching the class and memories of students who were in that class that were really good. It's very difficult to pick one out. I just love teaching all of those classes, and I am very lucky to teach them because they are so close to what I am doing in my research. So, no, I am not playing favorites with the classes!

"He's very thorough with his explanations. He also makes the material more fun by sharing his own mnemonics and stories, which help make the material more memorable. There is never a dull moment. Even if a topic is not exciting, he tries to find a way to spice it up."Student 

Q: What are you most proud of from your stellar teaching record?

A: I really enjoy and value teaching both within the classroom setting and in my research lab. One of my greatest points of pride is that during my nine years at Michigan Tech, I have mentored 103 undergraduate and five graduate students in my lab. I treat students as collaborators. Several undergraduates authored and co-authored publications and a book with me; seven undergraduate students won prestigious Summer Undergraduate Research Fellowships (SURF). I’m very proud of Tessa Steenwinkel, who has won four awards, most notably the Barry Goldwater Fellowship and Provost’s Award for Scholarship in 2019.

Q: Do you have a teacher or a mentor or a colleague that inspires your teaching? 

A: Yeah, Sean Carroll, my post-doc advisor. He just gives the most beautiful talks, many of them for public audiences. He's the best speaker I have seen. He has all these beautiful pictures and animations of butterflies and other life forms. He's that cool guy who knows that everyone loves what he's doing. 

Sean is the Darwin of the 21st century, a really big guy in evolutionary and developmental genetics. What I learned from him is his way of teaching. Most people try to be stiff, and they think that's smart, but I reject that. You have to allow yourself to appreciate beauty, right? Appreciate the beauty of things of what you teach or what you see. I show a fly wing, for instance, talk about the genetics making the pattern of the wing and say, "Just look at this beautiful fly." And the students laugh. But their laughing is different. They laugh and think, "Oh my gosh, this guy." They are surprised: "This guy is actually appreciating fruit flies, there is something to that and he appreciates them with such a confidence. There's nothing wrong with appreciating something that is small and annoying, maybe we just don't see the whole picture, right?"

"We are truly fortunate to have Thomas Werner as our colleague, as he enriches our lives in a multitude of ways. He is a dedicated educator who works diligently almost a year in advance preparing for his classes. His enthusiasm for teaching biology classes is infectious. He has trained 100+ undergraduates for doing research with fruit fly genetics in his lab, and some have published papers and won national awards."Chandrashekhar Joshi, chair, Department of Biological Sciences

Q: What’s next for you? 

A: I leave for Singapore on July 17 for a one-year sabbatical studying butterfly genetics. I get to do what I always wanted to do and never quite pulled off. As a child, I started collecting butterflies when I was 10 years old, and that's why I became a biologist. My whole life I've always wanted to collect butterflies, but you can't make money with that! And in college, my friend told me, "You have to do molecular biology now because that's how you make money." I said okay, I'll do it, so I became a molecular biologist, and in the summers, instead of being outside chasing butterflies, I was indoors in the lab with a white lab coat.

I was actually very lucky because I got a cover story in Nature because I figured out it's a human cancer pathway that puts the spots on the wings of a pretty fruit fly species. And then I got this job at Michigan Tech and I said, "I'm going to study butterfly genetics here," but I never purchased the stuff to do it because I realized that if I did this, I'd never get tenure.

So, I continued studying fruit fly color patterns, got a National Institutes of Health (NIH) grant for this project and a National Science Foundation (NSF) grant for another project about fruit flies eating deadly mushrooms. I got tenure last year and started writing books, including a field guide to fruit flies

I thought I'm not going to change my lab into studying butterflies right now, but one day, I really want to visit a lab where everything is set up for butterfly genetics. And that's now in Singapore. Antonia Monteiro at the National University of Singapore studies the color patterns of butterflies. She is figuring out the genetic pathways sculpturing butterfly pigmentation. I am going to visit her and work on this. 

Q: How do you think being a learner instead of the teacher for a year is going to influence your teaching at Tech after your sabbatical? 

A: It will only make me a better teacher. I like learning. Sometimes I think I have reached a level where I'm not learning anymore and so I think, now what? No, I need to learn something new. And I need a change of scenery and to skip one Houghton winter.

Michigan Technological University is a public research university founded in 1885 in Houghton, Michigan, and is home to more than 7,000 students from 55 countries around the world. Consistently ranked among the best universities in the country for return on investment, Michigan’s flagship technological university offers more than 120 undergraduate and graduate degree programs in science and technology, engineering, computing, forestry, business and economics, health professions, humanities, mathematics, social sciences, and the arts. The rural campus is situated just miles from Lake Superior in Michigan's Upper Peninsula, offering year-round opportunities for outdoor adventure.